Thursday, January 26, 2006

An Unanticipated Delight: Reviewing “The Greatest Game Ever Played” by Mark Frost

The best gifts are often ones that surprise us. A few weeks ago, a package arrived at my office with a return address of West Point. When I opened the package, I was pleased to find a book I had never heard about, and one I would never have chosen to read if Court Harris had not been thoughtful enough to send it to me as a late Christmas gift. And I would have missed out on a literary and historical gem. Mark Frost’s seminal book about the 1913 U.S. Open is called “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” Sports Illustrated named it one of its best books, and the story has recently been made into a feature film that is now out on DVD.

As someone who grew up not far from The Country Club in Brookline, where the legendary 1913 U.S. Open was played, I had known about Francis Ouimet for most of my life. But until I read Frost’s compelling story, I never paid much attention to the story. I never really had a grasp on who he was and what he had accomplished. To me, Ouimet was some shadowy figure from golf’s early days whose accomplishments held no interest for me as an inveterate hacker on the golf course and casual student of the game. Frost skillfully transformed what had been colorless shadow into compelling substance by crafting a story that is part epic, part history, part biography, part sociological analysis and part human drama. Young Francis - tall and gaunt, and his diminutive caddie, 10 year-old Eddie Lowery, leap from the pages of this book into the heart of the reader as latter-day reincarnations of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza!

As I read this book, I felt much the same range of emotions that I had experienced in reading “Seabiscuit.” In this telling of the story, Francis Ouimet emerges as “The Little Engine Who Could.” The cast of characters from this true tale emerges as if from central casting – heroes, rogues, emerging stars and fading “has beens.” There is international intrigue, class warfare, the American melting pot, struggles between fathers and sons, a Quixotic quest and implausible twists and turns as Francis makes a meteoric rise from obscurity to stardom. Francis started out as a caddie from a poor French Canadian/Irish family living across the street from The Country Club’s 17th green. He ended up as the toast of the golfing world and a lifelong Boston sports legend after beating the world’s best golfer, Harry Vardon, in a playoff round that electrified the thousands who had gathered to cheer him on.

Frost’s closing words sum up poignantly the scope of the story he has told and the human emotions he has captured within these pages:

“They’re all gone now. All those champions and challengers. All the men who breathed life into an obscure Scottish pastime that has grown to proportions none of them could have imagined in their wildest dreams. Every tournament you see today that thrills you with its twists and turns, reversals of fortune, triumphs and tragedies, owes an enduring debt of gratitude to this pioneering generation . . . Every one of us who casually or passionately plays the game for fun, companionship, competition or recreation should be forever grateful that Francis Ouimet looked out at that private, privileged world across the street from the house where he grew up, and found somewhere within himself the courage to cross the street.” (Page 475)

I don’t often recommend sports books, but this is so much more than a book about golf and sport, that I recommend it enthusiastically. I have a private set of criteria that must be satisfied when I go to see a play or a movie before I am willing to pronounce the evening a success. Two things are required. I demand that at least once in the reacting to the telling of the story, I must experience chills up and down my spine. And I must have been moved to tears. They can be tears of joy, surprise, sorrow, empathy, wonder – it does not matter. I seldom apply these tough standards to books. I am not ashamed to admit that in the reading of this memorable story, I experienced both chills and tears. And that is far from par for the course!




jsavard said...

Big Al,

May I also suggest "A Civil War: Army vs. Navy" by John Jeinstein, and "Staubach: First Down and Life to Go" by Roger Staubach with Sam Blair and Bob St. John?


Library of Congress Catalog Card Number FOR STAUBACH BOOK = 74-81607

jsavard said...

Should be Feinstein - NOT - Jeinstein (Fat Fingers)