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George Plimpton Reissues Books That Took Us Inside The Game

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

George Plimpton was a literary figure - one of the founders of The Paris Review - a society figure - the very image of a turtleneck-clad Manhattan bon vivant and intellectual. But he sure loved sports. And his writing about sports produced some of the signature works of personal journalism. George Plimpton tried to play quarterback for the Detroit Lions. He never did, but he produced the classic memoir "Paper Lion." He tried to be a baseball player, a boxer, a golfer, a hockey goalie, but only wound up with bestsellers about the experience.

Little, Brown has reissued seven of George Plimpton's sports books, including "Paper Lion," "Open Net," "Shadow Box" and "One For The Record: The Inside Story of Hank Aaron's Chase For The Home Run Record." These books include forwards by other sportswriting, acting and literary lights, including Tom Wolfe, Denis Leary and Rick Reilly. The foreword to "One For The Record" is by Bob Costas, the NBC Sports and MLB Network announcer and winner of eight national sportscaster of the year awards. Bob Costas joins us from St. Louis. Thanks so much for being with us.

BOB COSTAS: Hey, Scott, how are you?

SIMON: I'm fine, thanks. George Plimpton has - he had great respect for athletes, didn't he?

COSTAS: He did. And he wanted to find out not just from a distance, but from the inside, what it was they did. Maybe he didn't want Archie Moore to hit him with full force - because who would? - (laughter) but he wanted to find out as much as possible what it was like. What's it like to face a puck coming at you at supersonic speed? What's it like to pitch to Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle? What's it like to take a snap with a snarling defensive lineman just waiting to get at you? He wanted to know all of that. And he took us inside it.

SIMON: The book for which you've done the foreword, "One For The Record," is that rare Plimpton book that wasn't one of his forays into that kind of participatory journalism. It tells the story of Henry Aaron's run to break Babe Ruth's career home run record in 1974. He was the perfect man to write this story in so many ways, wasn't he?

COSTAS: Yeah. George spent a lot of time with Hank while he was approaching the record. Now we all think we know the story. But when you read this, you realize that there were so many telling details. And George had the reporter's eye and then the literary skill to render what he observed like few others.

SIMON: You read through George Plimpton's books today and admire and enjoy them. But you notice there's almost no talk of agents, no talk of steroids, spousal abuse, concussion damage in football, hockey or boxing - were his books great but also a little naive?

COSTAS: Well, he was romantic about sports. In truth, agents and the real big business and the real big money part of it hadn't come in when George was his books. And it's only in the last generation or so that people have come to terms with head trauma in football. So I don't hold George to account for that. I don't think he was ignoring any issues that were a part of the public discussion.

SIMON: What do you think he noticed, as the elegant literary writer he was, that some very fine writers who work sports as a regular beat might not have seen in the same importance as he did?

COSTAS: He was great about the personal qualities of the people he covered. He was more concerned - since he was not writing an immediate report, he was more concerned with fleshing out the colorful personality of Alex Karras. He was more concerned with what Mickey Mantle looked like looming in the batter's box if you were just throwing weak batting-practice fastballs to a man capable of hitting a ball 500 feet. He just came at it from a different perspective. What he - it was fresh to him. He wasn't jaded. By his powers of observation were trained on different things. So even if a handful of those who were on the regular beat had anything like his writing ability and reporter's eye, they were using it in service to different things - day-to-day things. And George was more of a - simultaneously a big-picture and small, telling personal details guy.

SIMON: Bob Costas - he's written a new forward to George Plimpton's "One For The Record." There are seven classic George Plimpton sports books, including "Paper Lion," that have been reissued by Little, Brown. Bob, thanks so much.

COSTAS: You're welcome, Scott. Always a pleasure - thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.