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Gods at Play: An Eyewitness Account of Great Moments in American Sports

Review

Gods at Play: An Eyewitness Account of Great Moments in American Sports

I must admit: GODS AT PLAY is not the book I was expecting. To be honest, I thought it would be a collection of multiple eyewitness accounts of various historic events. I was disabused of that notion very early on; although I was initially disappointed, the more I read, the better it got.

Tom Callahan, a veteran sports columnist with several venues, doesn’t so much report on single events --- although there are a number of them in the book --- as he does talk about his experience as a writer and his relationships with iconic figures such as Muhammad Ali, Pete Rose, Arthur Ashe, Tiger Woods, Joe Montana and many more across a wide range of sports.

"All of these stories are insightful, as can only be told by a sportswriter who has earned a reputation as one of the best in his field."

The stories range from telling long-held secrets to Callahan’s recollections of time spent with these athletes. Some are quite touching, as he deals with Arthur Ashe’s declining health due to AIDS, or former NFL Hall of Famer John Mackey as he suffers in the throes of dementia caused by years of getting beat up on the field. The writer --- who, as most do, sojourns from one opportunity to the next based on more freedom, more money, better perks, etc. --- has the ability here to humanize these people in a way that can’t be done in newsprint, given the limited space.

All of these stories are insightful, as can only be told by a sportswriter who has earned a reputation as one of the best in his field. Callahan cites meeting Pete Rose, the troubled superstar who broke Ty Cobb’s record for most hits in a career. The ballplayer was a member of the Cincinnati Reds, and the introduction went like this:

“I’m Callahan,” I said, “the new man at the Enquirer.”

“I heard a’ ya,” he said. “They say you’ve come to bring journalism to Cincinnati.”

There are a number of such observations by the (mostly) men Callahan covered over the years, athletes who developed a friendship and trust with a member of a profession that is often looked upon with scorn, suspicion or both. No doubt he did develop close relationships with many of his subjects, as well as colleagues. But as marvelous as these pieces are, there are times when the reader might tire of his habit of humble bragging and name-dropping.

The book’s title is also a little misleading, or at least curious: While there’s no arguing that the men and women included are “gods,” I didn’t find all that much playfulness here. Sure, there’s always a little kibitzing when you’re dealing with Ali, but most of the chapters depict a fair degree of melancholy. As well as they did in their craft, there was something in their personal life that seemed to get in the way of enjoying the accomplishment (often in the form of poor health).

Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on September 25, 2020

Gods at Play: An Eyewitness Account of Great Moments in American Sports
by Tom Callahan

  • Publication Date: September 22, 2020
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction, Sports
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • ISBN-10: 1324004274
  • ISBN-13: 9781324004271