A lot of people are going to be tempted to buy The Oxford Companion to World Sports and Games ( Oxford University Press, $30), because a lot of people have been companionable with Oxford "companions" for a long time. These fat, single-volume reference works—covering a broad range of human activity from history to music to literature—have for years been widely, and properly, regarded as indispensable sources for any student, whether serious or casual, of Western civilization.
All the volumes are intended to be thorough but intelligently selective, authoritative and—bless the British publisher for this—readable. Some, need it be said, are better than others: the Companion to American History is splendid, while the Companion to American Literature contains some quirky judgments and passes over several writers deserving of recognition.
The Companion to World Sports ana Games, it must be reported with some regret, falls in between. Perhaps a definitive guide to sport is an impossibility, but in trying to do too much this volume ends up doing too little. When it is good it is very, very good, but when it is bad it is—well, bad.
Before another word is said, let it be emphasized that this is the opinion of an American reviewer writing for American readers. The new Companion to World Sports is essentially a British production, and it may well be exactly what British readers need. I think, however, that American readers have a justifiable expectation that a book sold in this country as a reference work on world sport will cover U.S. sport adequately; this one does not.
The problem lies in the decision to make the book not merely a guide to how games are played but an encyclopedia of sports history. On the first part of that assignment, Editor John Arlott and his contributors are on solid ground; the survey pieces are, so far as I can tell, accurate and informative. But the individual entries are another matter altogether. Consider:
?There are entries for the Cincinnati Reds and the San Diego Padres, but there is none for the Cincinnati Bengals or the San Diego Chargers.
?There are entries for Walter Johnson, Cy Young and Bob Gibson; there is none for Bob Feller or Sandy Koufax.
?There are entries for Sammy Baugh and Joe Namath; there is none for John Unitas.
?The entry for Rod Laver is 45 lines long, that for Neale Fraser 35 lines. Babe Ruth's is 22 lines.
This may seem nitpicking, but I think not. The first three items above reflect a lack of consistency; the last reflects a lack of perspective. It can be argued that The Oxford Companion to World Sports and Games might not even exist if Babe Ruth hadn't come along to revolutionize professional sport; the compilers of the Companion evidently don't realize that.