The Baseball Writing Hall of Fame
Baseball is the cruelest sport. How else to explain its tug upon the heartstrings and psyches of so many good writers? While football and basketball have attracted their own forest-leveling share of books and even a few classics -- Fred Exley's A Fan's Notes and John Feinstein's A Season on the Brink, for example -- only baseball seems to consistently engender the literary equivalent of a grand slam, a high hard one or conversely, a mighty swing and a miss. Okay, maybe fishing does, too (Moby Dick, A River Runs Through It, The Old Man and the Sea, Far Tortuga), but that's only if you count fishing as a sport.Theories abound as to why baseball lends itself so readily to literature. My own: Baseball crosses age, race, class, time and even gender lines. It's a game every boy and girl at least tried to learn. It's also played outdoors in the sunshine, and sometimes it's played after the sun has faded from the sky (ask any parent trying to get a kid inside for dinner on a midsummer eve). Is it too far-fetched to suggest that the paraphernalia and trappings of the game itself -- bats, balls, bases, dirt infield, green outfield, bleachers -- evokes something close to a national pastoral memory? Granted, writers can overdo the pathos and sentimentality, as witnessed by some room-clearing excesses in Ken Burns' 1994 PBS documentary Baseball (I myself once wrote an unpublishable poem titled "In Remembrance of Saint Baseball"). Still, who can argue with the body of literature produced in homage to baseball?If there was a Hall of Fame for baseball writing, two separate Cooperstowns could be filled, one for nonfiction and one for fiction. For every Ball Four-like chronicle of real events, there's a novel like Bang the Drum Slowly or The Natural that contains such piercing truths they seem more real than nonfiction. Another curious aspect of baseball literature is that the overwhelming majority of great works are about pitchers -- either seen through the eyes of pitchers or written by them. My theory: pitchers orchestrate all the action on the field. When they aren't pitching they're sitting on their butts studying the hitters, umps, the outfield -- in short, they are what Henry James called "those people on whom nothing is lost." In the annals of these special books written by pitchers, the nod goes to Jim Bouton's Ball Four (1970), a funny, honest and touchingly human chronicle of his attempt to come back from an arm injury by learning a new pitch, the unpredictable knuckleball -- a perfect metaphor for his worldview. A typical observation: "I'm afraid Mike's problem is that he's too intelligent and has had too much education. It's like in the army. When a sergeant found out that a private had been to college he immediately assumed he couldn't be a good soldier. Right away it was 'There's your college boy for you,' or 'I wonder what our genius has to say about that?'...they don't believe that my kind of guy can do the job, so when I am successful they're surprised." Ball Four starts in the minor leagues -- a comedown for the onetime Yankee star -- and ends with an expansion team, the Seattle Pilots (now the Mariners). Bouton took a lot of heat from baseball's establishment for this book. He even wrote a followup, I'm Glad You Didn't Take It Personally (1972). At the time, the owners were trying to break the back of the players' union by bringing in a fat-cat Wall Street lawyer named Bowie Kuhn as commissioner. Check out Curt Flood's The Way It Is (1971) to see how well that worked out. Flood details the slave-trader mentality of team owners like beer magnate Auggie Busch, the owner of the St. Louis Cardinals and Kuhn's champion. A perfect coda: years later, Kuhn nearly went to prison for tax evasion.Another pitcher's book is Jim Brosnan's The Long Season (1960), which the veteran sportswriter Jimmy Cannon, then of the New York Daily News, called "the greatest baseball book ever written." Brosnan was the Samuel Pepys of baseball and Bouton's literary mentor. His two books -- the other is Pennant Race (1962) -- were bestselling chronicles of his life as a reliever for the Cincinnati Reds in good years and bad. For their time, Brosnan's books were, like Bouton's, considered painfully candid, which probably explains why they still seem fresh upon rereading today. Another reason for their timelessness is that Brosnan, when he played ball, was a mature man and a gifted prose stylist -- he later pursued a magazine journalism career -- not an overgrown boy. He saw through the silliness of the Father Knows Best mindset of his era. Both Brosnan and Bouton saw that "fathers" like managers Johnny Keane and Joe Schultz, Commish Kuhn, Boss Busch, et. al., didn't know diddlysquat. Finally, neither Brosnan's nor Bouton's books were ghostwritten or sanctioned by higher powers, which added to their truthfulness. In fact, the overenthusiastic Bouton wrote 450,000 words -- 1,500 pages! -- for Ball Four, necessitating the energetic intercession of editor Leonard Shecter.Besides pitchers, favorite utility players -- books to browse at leisure -- are Baseball Diamonds: Tales, Traces, Visions & Voodoo from a Native American Rite (1980), edited by Kevin Kerrane and Richard Grossinger; either of the two Fireside Books of Baseball (1956), edited by Charles Einstein; and Dickson's Baseball Dictionary (1996) by Paul Dickson. (I'm not much of a stat man, so the annual Bill James Abstract leaves me cold after a few minutes). The first two choices are living proof that the game has enduring literary attraction. They're thick with essays, reporting, short stories, novel excerpts, poetry, songs, cartoons, drawings, paintings and photographs. They cover the origins of the game, its unending human tragicomedy and even the racial divides that have plagued the national pastime long before Ken Burns made a religion out of baring these war wounds. Dickson's book, tracing the origins of the game's patois, always rewards a brief browse with that perfect phrase by which you can justify your every failing -- e.g., "Honey, I didn't fix the roof because I sustained a Charley horse while picking you some flowers...please, if you're going to swing that lamp at me, just try for a Texas Leaguer, not the grand salami.".In addition to Bouton's Ball Four and Brosnan's The Long Season, here's my lineup. The order in each category is alphabetical and otherwise arbitrary.: Best-Ever Baseball Books: Nonfiction* The Summer Game, by Roger Angell; Viking, 1972. This is the first installment of Angell's often masterful two-decade chronicle of the game. Angell is a fixture at the New Yorker (his stepfather was E.B. White!) and a throwback to William Shawn's school of elegiac prose. A typical line, randomly chosen: "But sometimes, of course, what it happening on the field seems to speak to something deeper within us; we stop cheering and look on in uneasy silence, for the man out there is no longer just another great athlete, an idealized hero, but only a man -- only ourself." * Babe: The Legend Comes to Life, by Robert Creamer; Simon & Schuster, 1974. A wonderfully written story of a legend and his times, and a completely new concept -- treating a sports figure as a cultural icon on the order of a writer or politician. The George Herman Ruth who emerges in this biography is a man who perfectly mirrors his times. America cut loose in the 1920s, the so-called Jazz Age, and the Babe's prodigious appetites -- for food, drink, public adulation -- were ready-made for such frivolous feasting. He, like the nation, paid the tab in the next decade. * The Way It Is, by Curt Flood; Trident, 1971. Though today's pro athletes owe this man a tithing, you'll never hear a peep from these venal creeps. The Flood who emerges from this book is an almost painfully sensitive person, an artist blessed and cursed with an athlete's body. In addition to dissecting the business of the game, Flood offers some nice portraits of teammates like Bob Gibson and Tim McCarver. * Black Diamonds: Life in the Negro Leagues, by John Holway; Meckler, 1989. The best book on a subject that still awaits its masterpiece; until that time, this will have to do, augmented by the chapters from Ken Burns' and Geoffrey C. Ward's widely-remaindered companion volume to the PBS documentary. It can be argued that the Negro leagues were single-handedly responsible for keeping the majors on their toes. Maybe most white folks didn't see how brilliant Josh Gibson was, but guys like Branch Rickey were paying attention.* Baseball My Way, by Joe Morgan; Atheneum, 1976. The best instructional manual going, by the best second baseman the modern game has known, now the best broadcaster in the biz. There were more visible and comical players on the Big Red Machine of Cincinnati -- Pete Rose, Johnny Bench -- but Morgan's quiet intensity was positively frightening to behold. Especially when he played my team, the Phillies. Curse you, Red Morgan!*Nine Innings, by Daniel Okrent; Ticknor & Fields, 1985. A brilliant concept -- a book-length explication of a random game between the Orioles and Brewers -- that works brilliantly. Each chapter covers one inning in the life of this game, with brilliant digressions about such marginal but lovable players as Lenn Sakata, Rick Dempsey and Stormin' Gorman Thomas. * Veeck as in Wreck, by Bill Veeck; G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1962. They don't make team owners like they used to, a Renaissance man with the heart of a clown and the soul of a favorite uncle. Bill Veeck was a master showman, an itinerant team owner (Browns, Indians, Cubs, White Sox) who believed that the fans came first and foremost and that baseball was not only a sport but an entertaining spectacle. He had a wooden leg, drank beer like water and hung with the Bleacher Bums. His books were filled with inscrutable observations such as "If big league baseball was not that strong a wine, then victory was not that mad a music." You gotta love him.* Eight Men Out, by Eliot Asinof; Henry Holt, 1963. This is the Powerfully-told tale of the 1919 Black Sox scandal, an epic event that could have broken the back of professional sports. Eight Men Out doesn't moralize, which is its strength. Rather, it shows how the greed of the underworld combined with the desperation of the underpaid can turn even a pastoral game played by boys into something out of Les Miserables. * The Boys of Summer, by Roger Kahn; Harper & Row, 1972. This book explains why Brooklyn Dodger fans' hearts are still broken. Like Ebbets Field, where their passion play once took place, it's a monument to decency and the unerring wisdom of the human heart. Born and raised on Brooklyn baseball, Kahn can't help but make this story autobiographical, but he also writes the biography of a team (the Dodgers of Robinson, Campanella, Reese, Snider, Hodges) and a time, the 1950s. Kahn's new book, Memories of Summer (Hyperion, 1997) is a can't-miss winner too. Fiction* Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings, by Bill Brashler; Harper & Row, 1973. Though fiction, this novel accurately depicts life on the Negro League barnstorming circuit during the bleakest days of segregated ball. The book is dedicated to Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell, three of the best players in history, who also appear in the story. John Badham actually made a pretty fair movie out of this in 1976, starring James Earl Jones and Richard Pryor. It's probably the most truthful portrait of a barnstorming team in the days of segregated baseball. * The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., by Robert Coover; Random House, 1968. A proto-Rotisserie League set in Dante's Inferno, Coover's book is disturbing in all the right ways. Henry Waugh is a paunchy Everyman whose real life is falling asunder, so each night he retreats into a fantasy baseball game he'd originally invented to kill some time. As he begins to invest his emotions upon every outcome, the game takes over his life like a psychological kudzu and, well, you can guess the rest. *Bang the Drum Slowly, by Mark Harris; Alfed A. Knopf, 1956. The story of a smart pitcher and his ill-fated hayseed catcher, this novel will draw tears from even the hardest-hearted Yankee fan. Any of Harris' baseball novels are worth reading -- The Southpaw, Ticket for a Seamstitch -- but this one will make you cry. The closing pages of Bang the Drum Slowly rank right up there with The Great Gatsby: "From here on in, I rag nobody."*A False Spring, by Pat Jordan; Dodd, Mead & Co., 1983. A minor league pitcher confronts the weighty issues of existence, and gets the hell beat out of him by Elrod Hendricks in the bargain. Jordan bases this remarkable novel on his own experiences as a promising pitcher in the Braves organization. The title refers to the collapse of that promise, as the cruel arm of fate tosses him some unhittable curveballs, all of this beneath the impossibly huge skies of McCook, Neb. *You Know Me, Al: A Busher's Letters, by Ring Lardner;Doran, 1916; Vintage paperback, 1984. Until the Black Sox scandal, Lardner was baseball's biggest, most perceptive fan. These fictional letters have his patented ear and eye. Lardner had one of the greatest ears in literature. Written in the form of letters from rookie pitcher Jack Keefe to his pal Al back in Indiana, this novel is his finest. Keefe was an original, noted critic Jonathan Yardley, whose "expression of the vernacular... has had a lasting effect on the way American writers describe American talk." * The Natural, by Bernard Malamud; Avon, 1952. Even though Malamud was swinging for the metaphysical fences with this novel -- attempting, as he did in all of his fiction, to pit good vs. evil -- he got enough of the idiom and the action right to have come damn close to the perfect morality play. A bat called Wonderboy, carved from a tree cloven by a thunderbolt? Awesome, dude!*Pride of the Bimbos, by John Sayles; Little, Brown, 1975. This is a minor classic about growing up painfully shy, with baseball not just a solace but a sort of inviolable sanctuary. The inner language and curious rituals of the game have rarely been captured this well. ("Humbabe!" "Little help!' "Choke!" "No stick!" and so on). Sayles had the potential to be a great writer but instead became a merely good film director. Choke! *The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, by Douglas Wallop; W.W. Norton, 1954. Inspiration for Broadway's Damn Yankees, this old yarn hits all the right diehard fan buttons. Joe Hardy arrives out of nowhere, two years after Malamud's Roy Hobbs did the same thing in The Natural. Only Wallop's book has a happy ending. That is, Joe Hardy -- er, Boyd -- is reunited with his long-suffering wife, but more importantly, the damn Yankees lose the pennant to the Washington Senators! If you think I'm snubbing W.P. Kinsella's overwrought, overrated novels, Shoeless Joe and the lesser-known The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, you're right. But there are two baseball giants I wish had turned their hands to writing about their careers: Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra. While Berra, longtime Yankees catcher and guru, has equipped the language with enough brilliant malapropisms to carry it through the next century (e.g. "You can see a lot just by looking"), Stengel was not without his classic moments. A typical moment occurred one day when writer Ed Rumill visited the great Yanks/Mets manager and his wife. The Stengels' dog took an instant liking to Rumill and wouldn't leave him alone during the meal. "Your dog seems to have fallen in love with me," Rumill told his hosts, to which Casey matter-of-factly responded, "Oh, it's not that. It's just you're eating out of her dish." Just for your information, that's from Robert Creamer's Stengel: His Life and Times (Simon & Schuster, 1984). Read it to help keep this man's memory warm.