Week Twelve: “Four Good Legs Between Us” by Laura Hillenbrand and “Pure Heart” by William Nack




It’s Derby Week ! Let’s look at some award-winning sports writing.


“Four Good Legs Between Us” by Laura Hillenbrand



“It was the 1930’s. The lives of three vastly different men had come to an intersection, and their crowded hour had begun. The improbable partnership they formed would turn a battered little horse into one of the century’s most celebrated popular heroes.”

Here is the story of of a knock-kneed little horse named Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand. The piece was published in American Heritage Magazine and won an Eclipse Award. Enjoy!

“Four Good Legs Between Us” by Laura Hillenbrand


A bit about Laura Hillenbrand . . .

Laura Hillenbrand is an American author of books and magazine articles. Her two best-selling nonfiction books, Seabiscuit: An American Legend and Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, have sold over 13 million copies, and each was adapted for film.


Hillenbrand with Bronze Sea, a direct descendent of Seabiscuit

For Seabiscuit, Hillenbrand won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year in 2001. She first told the story through an essay, “Four Good Legs Between Us”, that was published in American Heritage magazine, and the feedback was positive, so she decided to proceed with a full-length book. The book received positive reviews for the storytelling and research. It was made into the Academy Award nominated film Seabiscuit (2003).

Both books were written after she fell ill in college, barring her from completing her degree. She told that story in an award-winning essay, A Sudden Illness, which was published in The New Yorker in 2003.

Her writing style belongs to a new school of nonfiction writers, who come after the New Journalism, focusing more on the story than a literary prose style:



“Pure Heart” by William Nack




The author William Nack is considered royalty in the realm of thoroughbred racing journalism.
As we start a new bid for the Triple Crown, let’s read Nack’s classic, evocative, and deeply personal portrait of the greatest of racing’s champions, Secretariat.
It is a foundational piece of sports writing. The Sports Illustrated issue date was June 4, 1990. “Here, as California Chrome makes a bid for the 2014 Triple Crown, is William Nack’s evocative, deeply personal portrait of the greatest of racing’s champions.”

“Oh, I knew all the stories, knew them well, had crushed and rolled them in my hand until their quaint musk lay in the saddle of my palm. Knew them as I knew the stories of my children. Knew them as I knew the stories of my own life. Told them at dinner parties, swapped them with horseplayers as if they were trading cards, argued over them with old men and blind fools who had seen the show but missed the message . . .Horses have a way of getting inside you, and so it was that Secretariat became like a fifth child in our house, the older boy who was off at school and never around but who was as loved and true a part of the family as Muffin, our shaggy, epileptic dog.”

Here is “Pure Heart,” by William Nack.



William  Nack and others remember Secretariat and discuss the making of the movie  which honors him.


A bit about William Nack . . .


“In 1971, William Nack was an environmental writer at Newsday, the Long Island newspaper. At a particularly festive office Christmas party that year, Nack stood on a table and recited the name of every Kentucky Derby winner, a list that stretched back to 1875. The paper’s sports editor was so impressed that Nack was soon asked to be a horse racing writer.

The following June, he went to Belmont Park to visit Riva Ridge, that year’s Kentucky Derby winner, and was pulled aside by exercise rider Jimmy Gaffney, who suggested Nack meet Ridge’s stablemate. “You wanna see the best-lookin’ 2-year-old you’ve ever seen?” he asked.”   (from Sports Illustrated)


Thus was Nack introduced to Secretariat.


Read the full back story here


Other writing to check out:

Red Smith on Willy Shoemacher


Did you know . . .

. . .that the author William Faulkner once covered the Kentucky Derby?

“On May 16, 1955, Sports Illustrated ran an article entitled “Kentucky: May: Saturday.” It was about the 81st running of the Kentucky Derby, and it was written by none other than William Faulkner.FaulknerDerby
The single page of neatly typed prose had no punctuation. No commas. No periods. No capital letters. Just words strung together: “this saw boone the bluegrass the virgin land rolling westward wave by dense wave …”
The Derby was Faulkner’s second assignment for Sports Illustrated, which had debuted the previous year. In January 1955, the magazine published an An Innocent at Rinkside, in which Faulkner wrote of watching his first hockey game: “It was filled with motion, speed. … It seemed discorded and inconsequent, bizarre and paradoxical, like the frantic darting of the weightless bugs which run on the surface of stagnant pools”.
That spring, Sports Illustrated sent Faulkner to Louisville to record his impressions of Derby Day and the days leading up to it.”


And this from The Guardian: :Seabiscuit VS War Admiral: the horse race That Stopped the Nation:




Be sure to check out our post “Horse racing: The Basic Facts” for great rookie info and some excellent vintage video clips. And in our Facebook group, enjoy member comments and listen to an authentic radio broadcast from the day Seabiscuit won at Santa Anita!

Week Six: “The Silent Season of a Hero” by Gay Talese and “The Thrill of the Grass” by W.P. Kinsella


 “The Silent Season of a Hero”  by Gay Talese



Joe DiMaggio

We’ll be looking at the art of sports writing. Specifically, baseball. So batter up!

“In October 1965, Gay Talese . . .suggested to his editors at Esquire that the next piece he wanted to write was about Joe DiMaggio. DiMaggio was by then the mythic baseball hero to two generations of Americans, a figure of epic proportions, albeit an almost completely unexamined one, and Talese wanted to do a portrait of DiMaggio some fourteen years after his last big game. What happens, Talese wondered, to a great figure after the cheering stops, and what kind of man was DiMaggio anyway? . . . Off he set for San Fransisco, Fisherman’s Warf, and the DiMaggio family restaurant.”


Slow Motion Swing of the Yankee Clipper


The resulting article would end up being what editor David Halberstam called the “ perfect union of reporter, magazine, and subject matter at a critical time in the history of nonfiction journalism.” He even placed it as the first foundational essay in The Best American Sports Writing of the Century (Houghton Mifflin, 1999).
What do you know about Joe DiMaggio? Or the controversial Talese?
Here is “The Silent Season of a Hero,” by Gay Talese.

A bit about Gay Talese:

talese_3Gay Talese was born in Ocean City, New Jersey, on February 7th, 1932, to Italian immigrant parents. He attended the University of Alabama, and after graduation was hired as a copyboy at the New York Times. After a brief stint in the Army, Talese returned to the New York Times in 1956 and worked there as a reporter until 1965. Since then he has written for numerous publications, including Esquire, The New Yorker, Newsweek, and Harper’s Magazine.

Gay Talese has written fourteen books. His earlier bestsellers deal with the history and influence of the New York Times (The Kingdom and the Power, recently reissued in trade paperback by Random House); the inside story of a Mafia family (Honor Thy Father); the changing moral values of America between World War II and the era before AIDS (Thy Neighbor’s Wife); a historical memoir about his family’s immigration to America from Italy in the years preceding World War II (Unto the Sons, also recently reissued by Random House); and other such books as The Bridge, about the construction of the Verrazano-Narrows span between Brooklyn and Staten Island; New York: A Serendipiter’s Journey, a series of vignettes and essays on New York; and Fame and Obscurity, a collection of his articles principally from the pages of Esquire magazine, where he was credited by Tom Wolfe with the creation of an inventive form of nonfiction writing called “The New Journalism.”




As well it may be interesting to take a look at an letter which speaks to the heart of the dream of baseball. It’s from the wonderful website archive, “Letters of Note” curated by Shawn Usher . . .

“On December 7th of 1941, the Japanese Navy carried out a devastating attack on the U.S.’s naval base at Pearl Harbor, and ultimately sealed the Americans’ participation in World War II. Just a month later, Kenesaw Landis — then-Commissioner of Baseball in the U.S. — asked President Roosevelt whether the upcoming baseball season should be called off in light of current events.

Roosevelt replied with the letter seen below. Needless to say, baseball continued.

The White House

January 15, 1942.

My dear Judge:-

Thank you for yours of January fourteenth. As you will, of course, realize the final decision about the baseball season must rest with you and the Baseball Club owners — so what I am going to say is solely a personal and not an official point of view.

I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before.

And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.

Baseball provides a recreation which does not last over two hours or two hours and a half and which can be got for very little cost. And, incidentally, I hope that night games can be extended because it gives an opportunity to the day shift to see a game occasionally.

As to the players themselves I know you agree with me that individual players who are of active military or naval age should go, without question, into the services. Even if the actual quality of the teams is lowered by the greater use of older players, this will not dampen the popularity of the sport. Of course, if any individual has some particular aptitude in a trade or profession, he ought to serve the Government. That, however, is a matter which I know you can handle with complete justice.

Here is another way of looking at it — if 300 teams use 5,000 or 6,000 players, these players are a definite recreational asset to at least 20,000,000 of their fellow citizens — and that in my judgment is thoroughly worthwhile.

With every best wish,

Very sincerely yours,

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Hon. Kenesaw M. Landis,
333 North Michigan Avenue,




(from the website  Letters of Note)


“The Thrill of the Grass” by W.P. Kinsella




W. P. “Bill” Kinsella was a legendary fiction writer, best known for his award-winning novel Shoeless Joe, which took on a new life as the movie Field of Dreams.
In addition to Shoeless Joe, a romantic, magic realism baseball novel, Bill wrote other fiction in that genre, such as The Iowa Baseball Confederacy and Magic Time.
Bill Kinsella also wrote numerous baseball short story collections.

Here is the title story from one collection, “The Thrill of the Grass”.



kinsellaW. P. “Bill” Kinsella was a legendary fiction writer, best known for his award-winning novel Shoeless Joe, which took on a new life as the movie Field of Dreams. The author’s inspirational words, which defined the novel and the film—“If you build it, they will come,” “Go the distance,” and even “Field of dreams”—have taken their place in literature’s lexicon of ideas.

While Kinsella is best known for his baseball fiction, he has a prolific output in many genres. Kinsella is the author of numerous other books, including novels, short fiction collections, poetry, three baseball plays, and several works of non-fiction.