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BASEBALL BY THE BOOKS

Five Books for a Deserted Island
By Chris Christensen

In the 1960s, Peace Corps Volunteers, upon completion of training, were given a "book locker." The locker (actually a box about the size of a small footlocker) contained scores of paperbacks—history, politics, philosophy, fiction—that volunteers traded with each other. I served two years in the Marshalls, a group of islands two thousand miles southwest of Hawaii. Almost all of the Marshalls were without electricity, meaning there were no diversions like movies or television. So we read books in the evening by kerosene lamp.

I don't recall any baseball books in those lockers, but thinking about those days gives rise to a hypothetical exercise: If one were to spend two years on a deserted island with no electricity but with ample food, fresh water, and a simple but cozy abode, and you could take only five baseball books, which would you choose? Be mindful that this is not an inventory of favorite books, but a short list for two years in exile. Tough choices must be made, requiring the careful application of certain criteria, including good writing, variety, and, for me, history.

For our purposes, a "book" can mean a set of volumes constituting one work. For example, a multivolume history would be considered one book. This tips off an overriding criterion—length.

Which is not to say that brevity equals mediocrity. My own inclination is to take as much baseball history as possible, yet I would leave unpacked a trio of cherished chronicles of the past—Primitive Baseball by Harvey Frommer, A. G. Spalding and the Rise of Baseball by Peter Levine, and Playing for Keeps by Warren Goldstein. All are fine studies of the roots of baseball, but they average only 150 pages. Two years demand a balance of quality and quantity.

My penchant for history also eliminates fiction, although there are excellent historical novels that grace my shelves, including Hoopla and The Celebrant. I also love W. P. Kinsella's work, and Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., my favorite baseball novel, is a complex, through-the-looking-glass world that sent me reeling. Nonetheless, Coover and Kinsella do not board ship.

Such is the fate of many nonfiction books as well. Indeed, Jim Brosnan's great book The Long Season—which I read in an Air Force hospital bed in 1960 while recovering from food poisoning—does not make the cut. Also left behind are fine works like Lawrence Ritter's The Glory of Their Times, Keith Hernandez's Pure Baseball, Roger Angell's The Summer Game, and Tom Boswell's Why Time Begins on Opening Day.

For those who see a two-year sojourn on a deserted aisle as a chance to engage in a rigorous statistical analysis, baseball encyclopedias, statistical volumes, record books, and other such reference material would be required reading. But if you see yourself lying in a hammock stretched between two palm trees, you'd probably want prose—and lots of it. At least, I know that's what I'd want. Of course, this is purely a subjective endeavor, so one's choice of books is linked to the purpose one would put to the exile.

With this and the other criteria in mind, I pared my list down to about eight finalists and then, after tortuous equivocation, arrived at the five selections. Of the books that wouldn't make the trip with me, Harold Seymour's three-volume set, Baseball: The Early Years; Baseball: The Golden Age; and Baseball: The People's Game was the toughest cut of all. (My reasons for excluding it are discussed below.) Here, then, are my five baseball books for a deserted island:

David Q. Voigt. American Baseball: From Gentleman's Sport to the Commissioner System (Vol. I). Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966, 326 pp., out of print, cloth (reprint from Penn State University Press, 1983, 396 pp., $23.95, paper); American Baseball: From the Commissioners to Continental Expansion (Vol. II). Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970, 335 pp., out of print, cloth (reprint from Penn State University Press, 1983, 376 pp., $23.95, paper); American Baseball: From Postwar Expansion to the Electronic Age (Vol. III). University Park, Pa.: Penn State Univ. Press, 1983, 444 pp., $23.95, paper.

At first I thought it fine for Seymour and Voigt to coexist with me on an isolated island. I pushed aside the argument of redundancy by anticipating a two-year comparative study. After all, each three-volume history is excellent, well written, and offers enough differences to make either set of interest. Voigt, for example, skips over the early development of baseball, spending a mere six pages on the roots of the game as it evolved from the English sport, rounders, while Seymour devotes three chapters (thirty-four pages) to baseball's infancy. Seymour also allots more space to the debunking of the Mills Commission, a body set up by A. G. Spalding in 1905 to "prove" that baseball was solely an American invention.

So why Voigt and not Seymour? Four reasons—three pragmatic and one irrational. While Voigt may give short shrift to the roots of the game, he carries his story into the 1980s. Seymour abandons his narrative in 1930. Moreover, Seymour's third volume—a whopping 609 pages—covers the game outside organized ball, a subject not without value but one that fails to fetch me. In addition, Voigt's work includes a chapter dealing with baseball's influence in literature, movies, journalism, and other cultural areas and features more photographs and graphics, including, for example, a fifteen-picture series illustrating the evolution of the glove.

Finally, there's something about the "Edward Gibbon of baseball" (as Sports Illustrated dubbed Seymour) that bothers me—and prompts a slight digression. While it is understandable that an author would be upset about others borrowing from his work without attribution, Seymour grows increasingly bitter and grumpy in his prefaces to the three-volume paperback editions. In volume 1, for example, "As for those who have caviled at my work or used parts of it without crediting me, I can only say with Jonathan Swift, I never wonder to see men wicked, but I often wonder to see them not ashamed.'" In volume 2, "If imitation is the highest form of praise, then my work has indeed been complimented by those who have used it without crediting their source." He pulls out all the stops in the preface to volume 3: "I scorn the nit-pickers and scrap nibblers, not to mention the plagiarizers, who, without citing me as their source, like yipping jackals snatch chunks from the disdainful tiger's kill. One even had the gall to complain of the taste he gulped from one of my books."

To whom does he refer? Voigt? Voigt's work is replete with references and footnotes, and even cites Seymour. Could it be the author of The Man Who Invented Baseball, Harold Peterson, who was not averse (ala Edmund Morris) to putting himself on the scene "on a quiet sunny morning in the Spring of 1845" when Alexander Cartwright walked into a "dewy meadow" with a "carefully crafted diagram in his hand"? Although Peterson credits individuals and groups in his acknowledgments, his book contains no footnotes and there is no mention of Seymour, the pioneer in the field of baseball history who devoted a lot of attention to Cartwright's contributions.

Perhaps such speculation is irresponsible, but Seymour's sour rant against unidentified thieves almost begs it. At any rate, as good as he is, I leave Seymour behind and pack Voigt.

John Helyar. Lords of the Realm. New York: Ballantine Books, 1994, 640 pp., $29.00, paper.

 

If anyone ever tells you that baseball is boring, economics tedious, and history dull, hand that person this book. It is by far the most enthralling look ever at the business of baseball. From Spalding to Steinbrenner, from the revolt of 1890 to the strike of 1994, Helyar (who co-authored Barbarians at the Gate) chronicles the national pastime's labor wars, paying particular attention to the battle for free agency in the 1970s and the subsequent collusion conspiracies of the 1980s.

The book often reads like a suspense novel. In 1976, after an arbitrator declared Andy Messersmith a free agent, thus dooming the reserve clause, Marvin Miller, the leader of the players union, called a meeting. "Marvin Miller was like a dog that caught the bus. Now what did he do?" writes Helyar. Miller and the player representatives plotted the best way to lay the new ground rules. They knew better than to argue for total free agency for all players. Miller "could see that flooding the market with players would only depress salaries. It was the simple law of supply and demand." They discussed the question of how many years a player needed to become a free agent. "The trick was setting the free-agency threshold: high enough so it took a top player to reach it, low enough so he wasn't washed up by the time he got there."

They finally settled on six years. Helyar quotes Phil Garner: "The odds of a player getting six years weren't very good. Somewhere around three years people began to drop off. If you made it to six, odds were very high you'd make it to ten. Your very best players were the ones who made it to six."

"What we did was artificially limit the supply of free agents," said Bob Boone. The owners' response? A lockout of spring training. Then Charlie Finley, the Oakland owner, urged his fellow magnates to "Make 'em all free agents!" Helyar: "An owner had finally spoken out loud about the players' most dreaded scenario. . . . Marvin Miller heard of Finley's proposal and held his breath. To Miller's relief, the owners ignored Finley; the union got the six years."

Lords time and again exposes the owners ego-burdened stupidity when dealing with Miller and depicts their habitual underestimating of the players' solidarity. This book is a surprise pick, but worth more than one read.

 

Bill James. The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. New York: The Free Press, 2003, 1,008 pp., $25.00, paper.

 

James may not be the first observer to question the emphasis on batting average as a standard by which to judge a player's offensive worth, but he's been the most persistent. Thanks to him it is now conventional wisdom to view batting average in the context of overall run production. He illustrates the point by observing that the difference between a .270 hitter and a .300 hitter is not thirty percentage points, but a mere three; one gets a hit 27 percent of the time, the other 30 percent. According to James (and now many baseball managers and general managers), the most important offensive category is on-base percentage.

He came to this conclusion—along with other subversions of baseball tradition—many years ago, publishing his findings in his Baseball Abstracts of the late seventies and eighties. Applying his theories to history, James published his Historical Baseball Abstract in 1985. In 2001, he updated this classic, "one of the three greatest baseball books ever written," according to Lawrence Ritter.

The book is divided into three sections: a decade-by-decade history of the game, player ratings, and a small reference section. The first section includes a brief narrative history of each decade, broken up by fascinating sidebars and boxes peppered with anecdotes and such quirky features as the decade's ugliest player, its heaviest player, and its hardest thrower. Each decade also has an All-Star team, greatest minor league teams, and countless other arcana.

The player ratings are bound to spark controversy. James rates the top one hundred of all time, then the top one hundred at each position. He does this by employing his complicated "Win Shares" system, whereby he rates a player according to his contribution to his team's wins, both offensively and defensively. As always, James also factors in the park effect and the era in which a player played.

Surprises? James has Barry Bonds ranked sixteenth of all time. Unfortunately, the book was published just before Bonds slammed seventy-three homers in 2001, won a batting title the following year, and hit forty-five homers in 2003 (not to mention his ungodly on-base numbers since 2000). To his credit, James says that by the time he retires, "Bonds may well be rated among the five greatest players in the history of the game."

Bonds's great rival of the 1990s, Ken Griffey Jr., does not come off well. James ranks Craig Biggio way ahead of Junior (thirty-fifth to Griffey's seventy-third), calling Biggio the "best player in major league baseball today." Biggio "has contributed more to his team than Griffey has," says James, backing it up with year-by-year analysis.

Joining Biggio on the Jamesian underrated list are Kid Nichols (ninth greatest pitcher of all time, ahead of Koufax, Clemens, and Feller); Tim Raines (second greatest lead-off batter, behind Rickey Henderson); Henderson; and Mickey Mantle.

Besides Griffey, James considers Roberto Clemente vastly overrated. James lists him as the seventy-fourth greatest player of all time. "He benefited from a halo effect because of his heroic death," says James, adding that Clemente "made a lot of throwing errors, never hit 30 home runs in a season, and his strikeout to walk ratio was awful."

Who was the most intelligent player ever? Joe Morgan, who James ranks first among second basemen. (But, according to James, Morgan's on-field savvy does not carry over into the broadcast booth, where James rates him as a "a self-important little prig," a "twit," and a "weenie.") The least intelligent player? Dave Kingman.

Under each player ranked, James offers his usual pungent commentary or an amusing anecdote. For example, this story by Whitey Herzog is attached to the ranking of Bob Horner (eighty-second of all time at third base): "I called him Buddha," says Herzog, as quoted by James. "He was a little on the portly side and spent a lot of quality time slouched in his chair in the clubhouse." Just before the opening game of the 1988 season, Herzog found Horner sitting in the dugout, "in a deep trance," skipping infield drills. Herzog asked why he wasn't on the field. "He looks up at me, blinks like an old frog on a lily pad and says, I'm tired.' A hundred and sixty-two games left to play and the man is gassed!"

 

Daniel Okrent and Harris Lewine, editors. The Ultimate Baseball Book. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979 (revised 2000), 432 pp., $29.95, paper.

Admittedly, two years on a deserted island with nothing but historical text could be taxing, and this amazing coffee-table-sized volume contains some of the most compelling photographs ever compiled under one cover. But don't let the modest title fool you; it's a terrific read as well. Its chapters are divided into innings with a running historical text. Each inning includes a long essay, and hardly a page goes by without a photograph and glittering nugget of a caption. For example, there's a picture of the oddly shaped Hack Wilson, the great slugger of the 1930s (posing with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig), that includes the following (excerpted) caption: "Hack Wilson stood 5' 6", weighed 190, and wore a size 5 five shoe and a size 18 collar. Warren Brown wrote Wilson was a high ball hitter on the field and off it.' Al Drooz said that Gin was his tonic.' When he died in 1948, a $350 grant from the National League was all that saved him from a pauper's grave."

And this macabre cutline (quoted from the Washington Star) under a photo of the only major leaguer killed on the field of play, the popular Ray Chapman, who was struck by a Carl Mays fastball: "So terrific was the blow that the report of impact caused spectators to think the ball had struck his bat. Mays . . ., acting under this impression, fielded the ball which rebounded halfway to the pitcher's box, and threw it to first base to retire Chapman.'"

The essayists include Robert Creamer on the 1890s Orioles; Jonathan Yardley on Christy Mathewson; Wilfred Sheed on Connie Mack; Red Smith on Pepper Martin; Roy Blount Jr. on Joe DiMaggio; Tom Wicker on Enos Slaughter; John Leonard on the Dodgers; Mordecai Richler on minor league baseball in Montreal; and George Higgins on Fenway.

Daniel Okrent stresses that the essayists were commissioned to write original pieces for this book because the editors wanted to avoid yet another anthology. He also may have realized that the first great anthology could not be topped. "The Fireside Books may be baseball literature's greatest monument," says Okrent.

 

Charles Einstein, editor. The Fireside Book of Baseball. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1956, 390 pp., out of print, cloth; The Second Fireside Book of Baseball. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1958, 387 pp., out of print, cloth; The Third Fireside Book of Baseball. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968, 503 pp., out of print, cloth. (The material for this review is taken from The Baseball Reader: Favorites from The Fireside Books of Baseball, published in 1983 and, alas, also out of print.)

 

Journalism, particularly sportswriting, is often relegated to a status less than literary. This may stem from the subject matter. After all, sport is a trivial thing compared to matters of state or the absurdities of the human condition. But good writing is good writing, whether penned in a quiet, oak-paneled study or scribbled in a noisy press box. Nowhere is this dichotomy rendered more false than in the pages of the Fireside books.

Intellectuals—novelists, artists, poets, and professors—pay scant attention to the sporting world, with the exception of baseball. (Boxing has also fetched a few intellects.) Base-ball's leisurely charms and long history—James Madison died a mere ten years before the "first" Knickerbocker game in 1845—has attracted such luminaries as Whitman, Twain, Mencken, Anderson, Thurber, Farrell, Wolfe, Nash, Roth, Updike, and Moore (Marianne on the Brooklyn Dodgers).

These authors and many more can be found between the covers of this monument to baseball literature. Jacques Barzun, the French historian, is here with his oft-quoted observation: "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball." There are other nuggets in his essay, "God's Country and Mine," including my favorite: "The Gods decree a heavyweight match only once in a while and a national election only once every four years, but there is a World Series with every revolution of the earth around the sun. And in between, what varied pleasure long drawn out!" (Barzun could not have known that in 1994 the earth would fail to meet its solar round, thus canceling the World Series.)

Great moments in baseball history are here brought alive. Indeed, it could be argued that the greatness of such moments are enhanced and made permanent by the writing. We have Roger Angell on the sixth game of the 1975 World Series; James P. Dawson on Gehrig's final game; Arnold Hano on The Catch; John Drebinger on DiMaggio's streak; Shirley Povich on Larsen's perfect game; and Red Smith on the Shot Heard 'Round the World.

The gap between the literary and the mundane is bridged by two views of one such moment: the last game of Ted Williams's career. The more famous of the two, of course, is John Updike's "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu." The Harvard-educated novelist, winner of the Pulitzer, takes in the event at a distance from his perch in the stands at Fenway Park. The other view, "The Kid's Last Game," is from the inside—from the clubhouse and the dugout—by veteran sportswriter Ed Linn, on assignment for Sport magazine. Both are superb and beautifully written.

Updike's take is laced with literary allusion: "On the afternoon of September 28, as I took a seat behind third base, a uniformed groundskeeper was treading the top of the wall, picking batting practice home runs out of the screen, like a mushroom gatherer seen in Wordsworthian perspective on the verge of a cliff." The author goes on to review Williams's career: "It falls into three stages, which may be termed Youth, Maturity, and Age, or Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis; or Jason, Achilles, and Nestor."

He then turns his attention to the crowd. "[T]here were Harvard freshmen, giving off that peculiar nervous glow created when a quantity of insouciance is saturated with insecurity; thick-necked Army officers with brass on their shoulders and lead in their voices; pepperings of priests; perfumed bouquets of Roxbury Fabian fans. Behind me, two young male voices blossomed, cracking a joke about God's five proofs that Thomas Aquinas exists—typical Boston College levity."

Meanwhile, Ed Linn is prowling the clubhouse, seeking an interview with Williams, a dangerous undertaking given the ballplayer's bristly relationship with the press. Writing in the third person, Linn spots Williams: "Our man started toward Ted's locker in the far corner of the room. Ted pointed a finger at him and shouted, You're not supposed to be in here, you know. . . . You've been after me for twelve years, that flogging magazine.'" Linn reminds Williams that he is not a member of the magazine's staff and has written for Sport for only a few years. "Well, when you get back there tell them what . . . (he searched for the appropriate word, the mot juste as they say in the dugouts) . . . what flog-heads they are. Tell them that for me."

Later, Williams readies himself for the game: "When he stripped down to his shorts, there was no doubt he was forty-two. The man once called the Splendid Splinter—certainly one of the most atrocious nicknames ever committed upon an immortal—was thick around the middle. A soft roll of loose fat, drooping around the waist, brought on a vivid picture of Archie Moore."

Later, after batting practice, Williams is accosted by reporters and photographers. Updike's distanced description is rich with metaphor and simile: "The batting cage was trundled away. The Orioles fluttered to the sidelines. Diagonally, across the field a cluster of men in overcoats were festering like maggots. I could see a splinter of white uniform and Williams' head. He moved away to the patter of flash bulbs."

Down on the field Linn sees and hears the same scene. The description is detailed and direct, the prose naked: "Waiting in the dugout for the ceremonies to get under way, Ted picked up a bat and wandered up and down the aisle taking vicious practice swings. The photographers immediately swooped in on him. One nice guy was taking cameras from the people in the stands and getting shots of Ted for them. As Ted put the bat down, one of them said, One more shot, Teddy, as a favor.'

"I'm all done doing favors for you guys,' Williams said. I don't have to put up with you any more, and you don't have to put up with me.'"

I've gone to some length in comparing the two essays because they offer such a vivid contrast in style, yet equality in merit, between the novelist and the sportswriter on the same subject. The rest of Fireside—poetry, more essays, historical pieces, fiction—will further disabuse any skeptic of the notion that baseball writing cannot be literary. Indeed, if I could take only one baseball work to my deserted isle, it would be this treasure. —EFQ

 

CHRIS CHRISTENSEN, a regular contributor to EFQ, lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife, Bobbie Savitz.

© 2004 Chris Christensen

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