Gene Lyons
December 08, 1995 AT 05:00 AM EST

Idols of the Game: A Sporting history of the American Century Robert Lipsyte and Peter Levine (Turner, $23.95) Published to accompany the recent TBS series, Idols of the Game chronicles the careers of 16 allegedly representative American sports heroes, from the late-19th-century heavyweight boxing champ John L. Sullivan to Martina Navratilova. I say ”allegedly” because part of the fun in any such collection is debating the author’s choices. Nobody can quarrel with the significance of figures like Jim Thorpe, Babe Ruth, Knute Rockne, Joe Louis, and Jackie Robinson—even Arnold Palmer. But profiling Arnold Schwarzenegger, who isn’t an athlete at all, supposedly to illustrate the national fitness craze, borders on the absurd. Also, why are there no Hispanic idols in a book emphasizing the social and symbolic meaning of the games Americans play? Or, more accurately, the contests Americans have read about, listened to on the radio, and watched on TV as organized sport has steadily increased its hold on the national imagination — not to mention its pocketbook — during the past 100 years. Anyway, those arguments are exactly the kind that New York Times sports columnist Lipsyte and historian Levine hope to initiate in this very lively and anecdotal — if occasionally sketchy and digressive — popular history. ”A ball,” they argue convincingly, ”has often been seen as the magic pill to make an outsider an American.” A terrific annotated bibliography adds to the book’s value. B+

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