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Dispatches from the Sporting Life

by Mordecai Richler

The posthumous release of Mordecai Richler’s Dispatches from the Sporting Life, a collection of 20 essays on sports spanning more than 30 years, is like a collection of B sides from your favourite band – somehow familiar, yet brimming with unexpected insights and nuance. Writing about a philosophy festival held in France in late 2000, Richler shows that his ability to take the stuffing out of the pompous never faded, even as he fought kidney cancer.

Eviscerating an argument by a European speaker that soccer is a game for abstract thinkers and philosophers, Richler writes: “Obviously he had never been to a British soccer match, the riot police and ambulances in attendance, the philosophers in the stands, many of them with shaven heads, heaving bananas at the black players, pissing against the nearest wall or even where they sat, an intimidating puddle once forming immediately below.” His casual sarcasm and deadpan delivery belie his quintessential Canadian insecurity. Covering the 1963 World Hockey Championship in Stockholm, Richler notes, “…in Sweden there was no need to fumble or apologize. Canadians are known, widely known, and widely disliked. It gave me a charge, this – a real charge – as if I actually came from a country important enough to be feared.”

Throughout the wide-ranging collection, Richler’s writing rarely strays far from the working class Jewish neighbourhood of his youth, which gives special resonance to his stories of attending games of the International League’s old Montreal Royals – Jackie Robinson’s last team before breaking Major League Baseball’s colour barrier in 1947 – and Montreal Canadiens games at the fabled Forum. The Canadiens, Richler says of the team’s glory years in the late 1950s, were “the progeny of dairy farmers and miners and railway shop workers and welders.”

Richler’s reminiscences of baseball heroes such as Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg make us appreciate the importance of role models for young Jews at the time. It wasn’t enough to be a baseball fan, Richler implies. You had to root for the Jewish player because he was carrying the burden of his people.

Whether he’s fishing in Scotland’s Spey River or on safari in Kenya, Richler’s unpretentiousness and willingness to take the air out of anyone and anything – himself included – make him an especially Canadian treasure.