TRIBAL: College Football and the Secret Heart of America
By Diane Roberts
Harper, 256 pp., $25.99
THE DOMINO DIARIES: My Decade Boxing With Olympic Champions and Chasing Hemingway’s Ghost in the Last Days of Castro’s Cuba
By Brin-Jonathan Butler,
Picador, 304 pp., $26
PITCH BY PITCH: My View of One Unforgettable Game
By Bob Gibson with Lonnie Wheeler
Flatiron, 256 pp., illustrated, $26.99
During the week, Diane Roberts (PhD, Oxford University) teaches literature and creative writing at Florida State University in Tallahassee. On Saturdays in the fall, the self-admitted “Seminole lifer’’ celebrates “the sacraments of my people.”
Though Roberts recognizes that the “United States is the only nation sufficiently deranged to make a life-and-death matter of college sports,” and that “[c]lass, race, and gender — America’s top three psychoses — lurk in every corner of this unseemly business” she is “a feminist with a football problem.”
People who have decided to read one book having to do with college football should choose “Tribal.’’ In a crisp 245 pages of personal recollection blended with sociological and historical critique, Roberts presents the attractions of the game as well as the recognition that college football as practiced at Florida State and places like it is indefensible — part “beloved tradition,’’ part “corporate enterprise.’’
She finds that some of the contradictions of Florida State football were recently on display in the case of Jameis Winston. An outstanding quarterback, Winston was also the object of a rape accusation the university and the community did its best to ignore or downplay. His much lesser alleged offenses included shoplifting and behaving like an idiot in public on numerous occasions. Now the Heisman winner is in the NFL.
Roberts recognizes that football at FSU and other institutions similarly invested in touchdown-based marketing rests on hypocrisy that she should abhor: “My university has its own struggles with the book-learnin’ aspects of its mission.” She’s referring to the propensity of FSU football players to turn their academic responsibilities over to tutors paid by the athletic department. Still, she concludes “Tribal’’ by acknowledging that she cares too much to give up rooting for her beloved Seminoles, though she probably hates herself on Sunday morning.
In his new memoir, “The Domino Diaries,’’ Brin-Jonathan Butler details all he learned during his frequent trips to Cuba between 2000 and 2012. He found a former Olympic champion, Héctor Vinent, willing to help him train as a boxer for $6 a day.
He also found Gregorio Fuentes, the man upon whom Hemingway modeled his old man of the sea, and Fuentes agreed to speak with Butler for a bottle of rum and a $15 donation. (Fuentes turned the cash over to the state. He kept the rum.)
He conducted the final interview granted by Teófilo Stevenson, whom many felt could have beaten Muhammad Ali had Stevenson elected to accept the millions of dollars he was offered to come to the United States for the fight. Instead, Stevenson remained an amateur. For that he was celebrated in Cuba as a national hero. For another bottle of rum and $130, Butler got to talk to Stevenson, who died of alcoholism shortly after they spoke.
A writer with less integrity might have concluded from all of the above that Fidel Castro’s experiment had failed. But Butler understands that nothing in Cuba is simple. He is entranced by the beauty of the place in general, and in particular by the beauty of Castro’s granddaughter, with whom he had a brief and passionate friendship.
He is impressed, as anybody must be, to see that medical care is free and universal, that Cuba’s literacy rate is far better than that of the United States, and that while homelessness is epidemic here, it is extremely rare in Cuba. By the time of his last few visits, Butler becomes the object of continuous surveillance. Ultimately he is told he can’t return. But his time in Cuba provided this talented and ambitious writer with all he needed to introduce readers to the complex and sometimes contradictory island he loves.
Bob Gibson was an almost unimaginably great pitcher during the middle ’60s. In “Pitch By Pitch,’’ his chronicle of the first game of the 1968 World Series, Gibson happily characterizes himself as “grumpy,” which helps to explain why he sometimes threw at the chins of hitters he didn’t like — meaning all the ones who weren’t St. Louis Cardinals.
In that championship game, Gibson struck out 17 Detroit Tigers. The Cardinals won the game, though they lost the Series, four games to three. But the most intriguing elements of “Pitch By Pitch’’ have to do with personal relationships. Gibson and his catcher, Tim McCarver, a white southerner, became close friends. Their relationship was first based on mutual respect: Each came to understand that the other was very good at his job, and that each could make the other even better.
Then there was Gibson’s relationship with Curt Flood, whom he calls “the soul of our ball club,” though when Flood took on Major League Baseball’s reserve clause, thereby sacrificing the last years of his career, Gibson was no more inclined than the other Cardinals or players elsewhere to back him up. When asked about that recently, Gibson, one of the most feared pitchers of his or any other time, said he’d not stood with “the soul of the ball club” because he didn’t want to risk losing his job.From WBUR in Boston, Bill Littlefield hosts NPR’s “Only A Game.” His most recent book is “Take Me Out’’ from Zephyr Press.