Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
A Blender of Fiction and Sports
As I recall, the first full-length book my parents bought me was a little Bantam paperback called Sherlock Holmes’ Greatest Cases. Like many a young lad, I was hooked as soon as I plunged into Dr. Watson’s accounts of the famous detective’s exploits. I devoured every page, and I dare say from that point on, when it wasn’t sports fiction, I was mostly reading detective stories. Naturally, this literary diet served to focus my attention on references to sports in the Holmes canon. Although Holmes’ athletic prowess doesn’t figure prominently, and never outshines the sleuth’s observational and deductive powers, it comes in mighty handy in some of the stories. In fact, as readers learn in “The Adventure of the Empty House”, Holmes employs the martial art bartitsu (which Doyle actually misspells as “baritsu”) to win his life-or-death struggle with the evil Professor Moriarty.
My favorite Holmes short story has always been “Silver Blaze”, a little yarn featuring death and skullduggery in the world of horse racing. The tale achieved recent publicity as the source for the title of the 2003 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. Oddly enough, according to the City of Westminster Libraries Online Exhibit, Doyle didn’t think horse racing was really a sport at all. But he must have thought something of the happenings at the track. His final Holmes tale, “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place”, relates another horse racing episode. And whatever Doyle thought of horse racing, it’s clear that Holmes himself was a fan. In “Silver Blaze”, Sherlock delays his explanation of the mystery until after the running of a race on which he’s placed a bet. (See my home page slides for the quote.)
Enough about horse racing. It’s clear that Doyle did engage in a number of other sports. His unhappy days at Stonyhurst College, a Jesuit school still going strong today, were brightened somewhat by his participation in cricket, soccer, hockey, swimming, and rugby. And there’s more below the break.
Here’s a list of some of Doyle’s other sports dabblings:
- Doyle praised boxing as the most useful individual sport, a skill he believed could prove one’s manhood. The sport plays a major role in some of Doyle’s non-Holmes fiction, but it sneaks into Holmes’ adventures as well. In the novel The Sign of Four, Watson tells us that Holmes was a good enough “bare-knuckle” boxer that he had previously beaten a prize fighter in an unofficial bout.
- Correctly predicting that the nation would become a popular snow-skiing destination, Doyle was instrumental in bringing the sport to Switzerland. While there, he demonstrated his own skiing talent, and even mapped some cross-country routes.
- From his school days forward, cricket remained one of Doyle’s favorite pastimes. He even played alongside James M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, on a celebrity team.
- Somewhere amid all this Sir Arthur found time to fit in some golf. He played enough to be named captain of the Crowborough Beacon Golf Club in 1910.
- Of all the team sports, Doyle held the highest regard for rugby, but he did catch a glimpse of American baseball. On a visit to New York he watched the Yankees play Philadelphia. He enjoyed the game, but expressed some prescient concerns: “The largest purse has the best team,” he said. “[Besides], there is no necessary relation between the player and the place he plays for.” (Can you say Albert Pujols?)
According to “The Chronicles of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle” at siracd.com (also the source for the above baseball quote), Doyle said this about sports: “To give and to take, to accept success modestly and defeat bravely, to fight against odds, to stick to one’s point, to give credit to your enemy and value your friend – these are some of the lessons which true sport should impart.” In Westminster’s Online Exhibit, David Oldman says this about how Doyle took advantage of his forays into the sports world: “He put his experiences to good use: in much of his fiction his heroes (fairly) and his villains (no doubt unfairly) engage in many of the sports Sir Arthur tested out on their behalf. Their sporting prowess, or lack of it, was a key indicator of their character as gentlemen or cads, and their exploits greatly enrich his stories.”
I, for one, heartily agree with Mr. Oldman. I suspect I’m the only human whose bookshelf has the family-Bible-sized The Annotated Sherlock Holmes juxtaposed with The Kid Who Batted 1.000 and A Mulligan for Bobby Jobe. I sometimes wonder if that makes me an oddball. If so, I take comfort in believing that Sir Arthur would understand.