Three overlooked must-read books for Detroit sports fans

Winter is upon us, which at least in my house offers one more good excuse for hunkering down in a comfortable chair with a good book. As a public service to book-loving Detroit sports fans, and I know there are more than a few of you out there, I present a trio of overlooked Detroit-centric literary gems. These personal faves may not be “classics” (however that’s defined), but in my opinion they’re damn good reads that have stood the test of time. If you can find any of them online or at a used-book shop, snap them up. Each is worth the investment of a few dollars and a lazy two or three hours with the TV off.

Gordie: A Hockey Legend by Roy MacSkimming (220 pages, Greystone, 1994)
For someone who was arguably the greatest all-around athlete ever in any sport, Gordie Howe has had surprisingly few books written by or about him. Perhaps that’s a blessing, as most of those that have been published about the legendary No. 9 have been hackneyed and hagiographic works. Roy MacSkimming’s briskly written effort, however, stands out for the quality of its narrative. The Canadian novelist interviewed scores of Howe’s teammates and relatives, but received no cooperation from Gordie and Colleen Howe, with whom he had once met to discuss doing an authorized biography.

The result, strangely enough, may have been a better book. Unfettered by the usual concerns that accompany any work that must be blessed by its subject, MacSkimming constructs an objective and occasionally critical portrait while retaining his obvious affection for “Mr. Hockey” throughout. MacSkimming writes: “Howe’s image has been so clean-cut, so virtuous, that we forget he can flash a deliciously wicked sense of humor occasionally, such as the time talk-show host Dick Cavett asked him why he didn’t wear a helmet to protect his head while playing – after all, he wore an athletic protector, didn’t he? – and Howe is remembered to have said, ‘Sure, but you can always pay people to do your thinking for you.’”

I Don’t Care If I Never Come Back by Art Hill (283 pages, Simon & Schuster, 1980)
This book by Detroit advertising executive and longtime baseball fan Art Hill originally was published in 1978 as Don’t Let Baseball Die by a small publisher in the Upper Peninsula. In passages that are alternately funny, tender, and opinionated, Hill meanders back and forth through several decades of baseball history, touching on such subjects as the end of Lou Gehrig’s playing streak (Hill was there that day in 1939), Gee Walker’s infectious if wayward enthusiasm on those great Tigers teams of the 1930s, and Van Patrick’s exasperation with color man Dizzy Trout in the broadcast booth during the 1950s.

Noted baseball author Robert Creamer read the slim volume and championed its publication with Simon & Schuster in New York. The original book was delightfully directionless, but in order to expand and frame the narrative in the new version, editors decided to have Hill employ a diary-style approach. The “journal” comes across as somewhat contrived. For one thing, it’s never clear to casual readers what season Hill is writing about (though Tigers fans will recognize it as 1979). For another, in order to broaden the book’s appeal, Hill was asked to visit other ballparks. Finally, in order to get the book into production so it could hit stores by the following spring, the so-called season diary ends on August 15! Nonetheless, Hill’s love for the game shines through on every page. “I wish I could explain my lifelong obsession with baseball,” he writes at one point. “But it’s like trying to explain sex to a precocious six-year-old who then says, ‘Okay, I understand the procedure. But why?’”

Heart of a Lion: The Wild and Woolly Life of Bobby Layne by Bob St. John (207 pages, Taylor, 1991)
Bobby Layne, who quarterbacked the Detroit Lions to three NFL titles in the 1950s, was pure Texas, and so is this biography, written by Dallas journalist Bob St. John and brought out by Taylor Publishing of Dallas. St. John’s newspaper-style narrative is chatty and filled with anecdotes. He’s not interested in digging up any skeletons, principally because the controversial and rowdy aspects of Layne’s life have always been part of the public record. He does pick apart accusations that the “Blonde Bomber,” a notorious gambler, threw games while playing in Detroit, and largely glosses over the effects of Layne’s lifestyle on his family.

The author obviously mined several widely circulated magazine pieces from the 1950s and ’60s for much of his material. But he also supplemented his research with insightful interviews with many of Layne’s friends, family members, business associates, and former high school coaches. He also talked to Doak Walker, Lou Creekmur, Harley Sewell, Tom Tracy, Yale Lary, and several other teammates, most of whom have since passed on. “When I was a rookie,” Sewell said, “I went with Bobby Layne to get some toothpaste, and we didn’t come back for three days.”

It’s hard to believe that one of the most colorful and successful characters in all of sports history has had only this one book written about him. (Layne’s ghosted 1962 autobiography, Always on Sunday, doesn’t count.) But then, I’m still waiting on the first biography of such deserving sports figures as Joe Schmidt, Ted Lindsay, and Frank Navin.