His Own Self: A Semi-Memoir
Dan Jenkins (Doubleday 2014, Hardcover) 288 pages, $26.95 cover price
A confession that will tell you right straight off that this is no objective kind of review. Tell you the truth, I loved this book even before I read the first word, which is either 'Chapter' or 'It' depending where you consider a book actually starts. There have been four writers who have had the greatest influence on my own typing of occasionally lengthy words and sharp sentences: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hunter S. Thompson, Christopher Hitchens and Dan Jenkins. Three journalists and a novelist and come to think of it, four men who knew their way around a mini-bar and a pack of filter tips. Unless someone finds something stuck under the back of a roll-top desk, Dan Jenkins is the only one of the four putting out new work – and in a golf sense, work about putting – so I was a deliriously happy boy when I saw that ol' Dan had written his biography. The feeling was kind of like hauling your golf clubs out of the trunk of your car at Swampy Downs CC and Arnold Palmer whistles over and shouts, 'Hey! You got a tee time? I need a game.' Yeah, it's a whole lot like that.
Those who don't know Jenkins don't know squat all about sportswriting and if you don't know about sportswriting, then son you have missed the best part of your daily newspaper. You know the famous story about the young reporter sent out to cover the Johnstown Flood in the 1800s whose lead wired back to the paper was 'God sits on a hill over Johnstown tonight”, to which his editor fired back, 'Forget flood. Interview God.' That editor was ten different kinds of pissed off. He had to have been a news editor. If he'd been the sports editor, he's have praised the kid and told him, 'Send me more!'
The News department and its colleagues in the City Desk, National and Regional News – even the Editorial Page – have all the humour and style of a Baptist preacher with a bad itch and laryngitis. It's the Sports department that attracts the storytellers. It has to. Ever since the invention of radio, readers have known the final score hours before they ever read a story about whatever game it was played the day or night before. They want that story to tell them what that game and those athletes were like.
Parenthetically, that is why there are so many lousy, boring pseudo-journalists on television. There used to be a few good ones: Jack Whittaker, a friend of Jenkins, was one. Howard Cosell was another. Nowadays, pretty much all you get after the game is a guy or a gal with a microphone sticking it under a sweaty quarterback's nose and asking him, 'So how does it feel?' Well if he won, it feels pretty damn good; if he lost, it feels awful bad. I've never yet heard one of 'em say, 'It feels like I just did every cheerleader in the SEC and every one of them pretty girls was sorely grateful for it.' Heck, even that quarterback yelling, 'I'm going to Disney World!' is just a darn ad slogan. He's more likely wanting to shout, 'I'm going to Hooters!'
That above bit was pretty politically incorrect, now wasn't it? Yeah, I know it is. And so is Dan Jenkins which is partially why I love his writing so much. Politically, we'd wouldn't agree on a thing. I'm at least a one-iron to the left of his right, but I don't care. I bow down to any man like him who can write a line like this about the USC-UCLA game of 1968:
In that college football game for the championship of Earth, Saturn, Pluto and Los Angeles, UCLA's Gary Beban had a rib cage that looked like an abstract painting, and USC's O.J. Simpson had a bandaged foot that looked like it belonged in a museum of natural history.
His Own Self is not just a collection of Jenkins' best lines. He also quotes from the best sportswriting of the late Jim Murray of the L.A. Times, Red Smith, Blackie Sherrod, John Lardner and a host of others, each of whom have entertained and – yes – instructed me over the years in how to make a story sit up, take charge and pry open a reader's eyeballs. Even better are the stories of the great athletes that hadn't made it into Jenkins' work in Sports Illustrated, Playboy or Golf Digest. I know that I have to have read at least 3,000 pages of books and magazine copy about Ben Hogan in my life; I finally feel as though I know Ben Hogan. And yes, I agree with Dan Jenkins that Hogan was the greatest golfer who ever lived, even after that life was nearly snuffed out by the front of a Greyhound Bus in 1949.
Jenkins is closing in fast on his 90th year, yet his writing is still as sharp as when I first ran across him in the late 1960s. His imagination and his images haven't aged a day. My gosh, he even made me like George H.W. Bush after reading Jenkins' description of the 41st President who became a friend of Dan and his wife June. How can you not like a man who sees a group of tourists in a White House hallway and drops what he's doing to shake their hands because, 'After all, it's their house.'
Where do I rank His Own Self among all the other sports books I've read? It is right at the top of the heap, along with George Plimpton's Paper Lion and the same author's The Bogey Man, Jerry Kramer and Dick Schaap's Instant Replay, and Roger Kahn's The Boys of Summer. His Own Self in its own way is even a little more special than those others,a s it is not just about the men and women who play the games; it is just as much about the men and women who write about the games. God love 'em, every one.
Be seeing you.