Recently, Washington Post baseball reporter Tom Boswell was asked to explain why, in his estimation, more good books about baseball are published in a single year than have ever been written about football. Boswell cited George Plimpton's "small ball'' theory of good writing: Since nothing noteworthy has been written about beachballs or volleyballs, and the best American short story is Twain’s "Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," in which buckshot figures prominently, it must follow that the smaller the ball, the better the writing.
Less facetiously, Boswell explains the greater appeal of baseball in The Heart of the Order (Penguin, 1989). The play on the field is open, visible; the season is an accumulation of small, daily events, reflecting the pattern of life outside sports; and the game can be played by people of average height and weight. Something in the ordinariness, the dailiness of the game invites reflection and metaphor. He adds, "Baseball has Catfish, Spaceman, Blue Moon Odum, and the Sugar Bear. Football has Lester the Molester, Too Mean, and the Assassin. Baseball has a bullpen coach blowing bubblegum, with his cap turned around backward, leaning on a fungo bat. Football has a defensive coordinator in a satin jacket with a headset and a clipboard."
Donald Hall, in his essays Fathers Playing Catch with Sons (North Point Press, 1985), says of football and basketball writing. "Both sports encourage penis-envy prose: in football, envy of meat violence, splintered bone, and cleat marks on the eyeball; in basketball, gray-boy envy of black cool." And, "Baseball is fathers and sons. Football is brothers beating each other up in the backyard..."
Whatever the reason, there is no facet of baseball that has not been prodded, sliced, calculated, glorified, damned by writers of sports or literature or poetry — by players, managers, and umpires who aspire to sports writing or literature or poetry. The Library of Congress catalogues nearly 4000 titles. The Baseball Hall of Fame library shelves about 10,000. Bookstar currently displays 140 nonfiction baseball titles.
In his thoughts on baseball and writing, Philip Roth observes ("My Baseball Years.” Reading Myself and Others, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1975):
I am only saying that my discovery of literature, and fiction particularly, and the “love affair" — to some degree hopeless, but still earnest - that has ensued, derives m part from the childhood infatuation with baseball. Or, more accurately perhaps, baseball - with its lore and legends, its cultural power, its seasonal associations, its native authenticity, its simple rules and transparent strategies, its longueurs and thrills, its spaciousness, its suspensefulness, its heroics, its nuances, its lingo, its “characters," its peculiarly hypnotic tedium, its mythic transformation of the immediate — was the literature of my boyhood.
Each of the characteristics cited by Roth inspires its own type of writing, and each describes a view of the game as different as the bleachers are from the dugout.
For baseball romantics — usually novelists, poets, rarely people who’ve actually played the major league game — favorite themes are timelessness and nostalgia, Donald Hall’s "fathers and sons” Roger Angell, from The Summer Game, (Viking, 1972):
Baseball time is seamless and invisible, a bubble within which players move at exactly the same pace and rhythms as all their predecessors. This is the way the game is played in our youth and in our father's youth, and even back then — back in the country days - there must have been the same feeling that time could be stopped Since baseball time is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly; keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young.
Or Michael Blumenthal's "Night Baseball" (Days We Would Rather Know, Viking Press, 1984):
At night, when I go out to the field to listen to the birds sleep, the stars hover like old umpires over the diamond, and I think back upon the convergences of ball and balk, of cowhide and the whacked thumping of cork into its oiled pockets, and I realize again that our lives pass like the phased signals of that old coach, the moon, passing over the pitcher’s mound, like the slowed stride of an aging shortstop as he lopes over the infield or the stilled echo of crowds in a wintered stadium…
While Blumenthal wistfully echoes the familiar whack and thump of the game. Yale physicist Robert Adair writes:
The highest frequency sound produced in the course of ball-bat contact is roughly one-half the inverse of the impact time (so that a collision that lasts less than 1/1000 of a second generates sound frequencies greater than 500 cycles per second, which is one octave above middle C. One hears these characteristic high frequencies in the "crack" of the bat. When the ball is hit off-center, the collision time is a little longer, generating somewhat lower maximum frequencies. With a lower maximum frequency and the addition of a strong component of lower frequency sound from the natural bat oscillation, the crack becomes more of a thunk.
The game demystified (The Physics of Baseball, Harper & Row, 1990).
Clear-eyed, analytical, George Will's Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball (Macmillan. 1990) gathers in the details of preparation and play that are attended to by the conscientious, right-thinking men of the game. No weak-kneed nostalgia here.
Of all the silly and sentimental things said about baseball, none is sillier than the description of the game as "unhurried" or "leisurely " Or (this from folks at the serious quarterlies) that baseball has "the pace of America's pastoral past " This is nonsense. The reality of baseball is that the action involves blazing speeds and fractions of seconds, furthermore, baseball is as much a mental contest as a physical one… There is barely enough time between pitches for all the thinking that is required, and that the best players do, in processing the changing information about the crucial variables.
One of Will’s favorite craftsmen is Tony Gwynn. Will uses Gwynn to illustrate the concept of "playing within one’s self," baseball's version of "To thine own self be true." He writes. “Polonius could have been a baseball coach."
At one point in his career Gwynn was tempted to overreach. When after his sensational 1987 season he finished only eighth in the National League MVP voting, he succumbed, if only briefly, to bitter thoughts. He began to think that in order to get the respect that any artist worth his salt craves, he would have to truckle to contemporary prejudices and vulgar tastes — he would have to start hitting home runs….(But) during the winter of 1987-88. Gwynn decided to leave superb alone. He would settle for being the best Tony Gwynn in baseball. He knew hitting home runs was not his natural bent.
Will calls his book "hero appreciation." not hero worship. In America through Baseball, sociologist David Voigt writes, testily, about baseball heroes and fan nostalgia: "Under the eye of TV it is un likely that a Kelly, a Cobb, or a Ruth could rise to stardom and stay there for a decade or more as chief idol... Because they better understand the fickleness of TV fame, modern players seem better adjusted to the medium's caprices than those linear-minded fans who bemoan the passing of old-fashioned baseball heroes."
Unlike TV, baseball prose and poetry help create and perpetuate the games heroes. One of the most written about, bridging Voigt’s pre- and post-TV eras, is Ted Williams, both glorified and vivisected by writers from his earliest days in the game, more than 50 years ago. David Halberstam devotes nearly two chapters to Williams in his story of one year in the traditional Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, Summer of ‘49 (Morrow. 1989), a book that is necessarily filled with baseball heroes. He recounts stories of Boston columnist Dave Egan’s alcohol-fueled attacks: "What he did to Williams was not pleasant for anyone who cares about the American press. His coverage amounted to a vendetta. He knew exactly which buttons to push with this sensitive young man. He loved to claim that Williams was not a clutch hitter and was, in Egen's cruel words, ‘the inventor of the automatic choke.’ ”
Ted is remembered by Andrew’ Sams (Cult Baseball Players, Fireside/Simon & Schuster. 1989):
Williams lifted individualism to a new plateau in supposedly collectivist sports when, on the occasion of his being walked with the bases loaded in the last of the ninth to force in the winning run for his Boston Red Sox, he threw his bat up in the air in disgust at not having been given a good pitch to hit. This was the mark of a Romantic virtuoso standing alone on a mountaintop with a unique gift separating him from the rest of humdrum humanity.
And John Updike’s much-anthologized "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," about Williams’s last game in the majors. The moment was the stuff of novels and films, and the essay it inspired is repeatedly cited as one of the best in sports literature.
My personal memories of Williams began when I was a boy in Pennsylvania, with two last place teams in Philadelphia to keep me company. For me, Williams was a figment of the box scores who always seemed to be going 3-for-5. He radiated, from afar, the hard blue glow of high purpose...
The essay ends with Williams’s final at-bat in the game, when he lofted one last home run.
Like a feather caught in a vortex. Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs – hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn't tap his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted 'We want Ted' for minutes after he hid in the dugout. he did not come back.... Gods do not answer letters.
Williams, scheduled to play a few more games that season, showed his own appreciation for the making of a legend by retiring immediately.
Gregory Corso’s poem "Dream of a Baseball Star." on Williams’s retirement: "I dreamed Ted Williams leaning at night against the Eiffel Tower, weeping."
Richard Ben Cramer’s Esquire essay. "What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?" (collected in The Best American Essays 1987, Ticknor & Fields) opens with Williams playing tennis in retirement in Florida.
[Ted's] not hard to see. He's out every day. out early and loud.... These days, there are no crowds, but Ted is watched, and why not? What other match could draw a kibitzer’s eye when Ted, on the near court, pounds toward the net, slashing the air with his big racket, laughing in triumphant derision as he scores with his killer drop shot, or smacking the ball twenty feet long and roaring. "SYPHILITIC SONOFABITCH!" as he hurls his racket to the day at his feet.
But for every baseball hero, there are hundreds unremembered. Stories from the minor leagues have a special poignancy, being, as the minors are, more about failure than success. In Andre Dubus’s short story "The Pitcher" (Finding a Girl in America, Godine, 1980), Billy considers Rick Stanley, seven years in the minor leagues.
He had a look about him of age, of resignation, of having been forced — when he was too young to bear it well — to compromise what he wanted with what he could do.... It showed in the field too. Not during a play, but when it was over and Stanley threw the ball to the pitcher and returned to his position, his face looking as though it were adjusting itself to the truth he had forgotten when he backhanded the ball over the bag and turned and set and threw his mitt-popping peg to first; his face then was intense, reflexive as his legs and hands and arm; then the play was over and his face settled again into the resignation that was still new enough to be terrible. It spread downward to his shoulders and then to the rest of him and he looked old again. Billy wished he had seen Stanley play third when he was younger and still believed there was a patch of dirt and a bag and a foul line waiting for him in the major leagues
Pat Jordan’s False Spring (Dodd. Mead & Co., 1975) is an account of the author's brief life in baseball — from his days as a high school star through his bewildering failure as a moody, erratic pitcher with minor-league clubs in McCook, Nebraska, and Palatka, Florida. Jordan recalls a game in which he was ordered to pitch curve balls to Jim Hicks but defiantly threw only fastballs.
[Hicks] swings through them all. with such force that he fell to one knee. He righted himself with his bat… The sight of him on one knee was what I pitched for. I loved such moments even more than a satisfying career. I know that now. I had neither the patience nor the vision to develop a strip of moment into a successful season much less a satisfying career. My career was no aesthetically well made movie - rising action, climax, denouement. It was a box strewn with unnumbered slides. A box of pure and frozen moments through which I have been sorting, picking up a moment here, a moment there, holding them to the light, seeing previously undefined details, numbering that moment, then putting it with all the others in some order which. I hope, will eventually produce a scenario of my’ career. But this process goes against my gram I still prefer moments. Moments are fathomable in a way my career, my life, any life can never be.
Donald Hall characterizes baseball as a game "gloriously afflicted by the anecdote." Anecdotes, particularly off-the-field stories, are the mainstay of the volumes of interviews with retired players, like Donald Homs's Baseball When the Grass Was Real (reprinted in A Donald Honig Reader, Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 1988). Honig's book contains former Dodger Billy Herman's story about spring training in Cuba in 1942, when Havana resident Ernest Hemingway “liked to hang around with ballplayers.’’ Herman recalls. "He was a big, brawny man, and when he’d had a few drinks, he got mean, real mean." Late one night, after a full day of drinking, Hemingway challenged Dodger player Hush Casey to a boxing match. While Casey pulled on his gloves,
... Hemingway suddenly hauled off and belted him. He knocked Casey into the bookstand and there goes the tray with all the booze and glasses smashing over the terraoo floor. .. They were moving back and fourth across the broken glass and you could hear it cracking and crunching…
Boom, Casey starts hitting him. Then Casey belted him across some furniture, and there was another crash as Hemingway took a lamp and table down with him. Hemingway was getting sore. He’d no sooner get up than Hugh would put him down again. Finally he got up this time, made a feint with his left hand, and kicked Casey in the balls.
That's where we figured it had gone far enough We made them take the gloves off. Then everything was all right "Let's have another drink." Hemingway said…
If not for collected anecdotes, the history of the Negro Leagues would be lost; same records are rare. In John Holway's Black Diamonds (Meckler Books. 1989), first -baseman George Giles recalls traveling between games in the '30’s: "There were nine of us riding in one big Buick. Slept in those Buicks. I called 'em’ Hotel Buicks.’ All we took along was a toothbrush. We got so we could sleep on each other’s shoulders. Somebody’d say, ‘Swing’ during the night, and we’d lean the other way.’’
The anecdote is also at the heart of the spate of "as-told-to" books by (the covers promise) "colorful, irreverent’’ former major leaguers talking to rented writers. The locker room is a favorite setting for many of the gossipy stories. Sparky Lyle’s Bronx Zoo (as told to Peter Golenbock, Crown, 1979) is a day-by-day account of George Steinbrenner and the '79 Yankees, a far cry from Halberstam’s Yankees of 30 years before. Lyle describes player reaction to a federal court ruling that forced the Yankees to admit women sports reporters to the locker room during the World Series that year.
October 1: I bought a cake from a bakery in Manhattan and brought it into the clubhouse for anyone who wanted to eat it. It was in the shape of a dick, about two feet long and six inches wide, and I put a sign on it. ‘FOR WOMEN REPORTERS ONLY'… One girl reporter got real upset. She walked over and saw it and said. 'Who did this? I don't think this is very nice.' She asked [Graig] Nettles if he brought it in. He said. No. I just modeled for it ' She stormed out of the clubhouse. . Some people can't take a joke.
Baseball has even been called a game created by writers. Historians credit the flamboyant, inventive daily sports reporting of newspapers in the late 19th Century with helping to clinch baseball in the minds of Americans as the national pastime. Paul Dickson’s discussion of baseball slang in The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (Facts on File. 1989) quotes a typical example: "Arnie Rusie made a Svengali pass in front of Charlie Reilly’s lamps and he carved three nicks in the weather" (Rusie got Reilly to strike out.)
And the language was lampooned from the beginning. Chicago Record columnist-humorist George Ade often wrote in exaggerated slang to mock the fads of his day, including baseball. From Ade’s "Fable of the Base Ball Fan Who Took the Only Known Cure.’’ published in the Record in the late 1890’s:
Once upon a Time a Base Ball Fan lay on his Death-Bed He had been a Rooter from the days of Underhand Pitching…For many Summers he would come Home, one Evening after Another, with his Collar melted, and tell his Wife that the Giants made the Colts look like a lot of Colonial Dames playing Bean Bag in a Weedy lot back of an Orphan Asylum, and the Dummy at Right needed an Automobile, and the New Man couldn't jump out of a Boat and hit the Water, and the Short Stop wouldn't be able to pick up a Ball if it was handed to him on a Platter with Water Cress around it. and the Easy One to Third that ought to have been Sponge Cake was fielded like a One legged Man with St. Vitus dance trying to do the Nashville Salute.
Of course, she never knew what he was Talking about, but she put up with it. Year after Year....
And Frank Sullivan writing in The New Yorker in 1949 (collected in Fielder 's Choice: An Anthology of Baseball Fiction, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979):
Q: Mr. Arburthnot. you are an expert in the cliches of baseball — right?
A: I pride myself on being well versed in the stereotypes of our national pastime
Q: Well, well test you….How do you refer to first base?
A: First base is the initial sack.
Q: And second base?
A: The keystone sack.
Q. What's third base called?
A: The hot corner. The first inning is the initial frame, and an inning without runs is a scoreless stanza
Q: What is one run known as?
A: A lone run. but four runs are known as a quartet of tallies.
Q: What do the teams that chalk up victories do to the teams that lose?
A: They nip, top, wallop, trounce, rout, down, subdue, smash, drub, paste, trip, crush, curb, whitewash, erase, bop, slam, batter, check, hammer, pop. wham, clout, and blank the visitors. Or they zero them. They jolt them, or deal them a jolt....
The Dickson dictionary lists some of these among its 5000 contemporary and historical terms used by players and sports writers (different vocabularies, Dickson notes), along with some classic baseball quips, like columnist Arthur "Bugs" Baer’s tribute to fastballer Walter Johnson: "He could throw a lamb chop past a wolf."
FANS AND READERS
Baseball writers have an easy task — preaching to the choir. True fans of the game are suckers for the genre, for seeing their own beliefs, emotions, dreams set in print. From W.P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe (Houghton Mifflin. 1982):
I am reminded of the story about the baseball fans of Milwaukee, and what they did on a warm fall afternoon, the day after it was announced that Milwaukee was to have a major league team the next season. According to the story, 10,000 people went to County Stadium that afternoon and sat in the seats and smiled out at the empty playing field - sat in silence, in awe, in wonder, in anticipation, in joy - just knowing that soon the field would come alive with the chatter of infielders, bright as bird chirps.
Though, more realistically. Raymond Mungo observed that "fewer than 2800 fans showed up to see [pitcher Gaylord] Perry's 300th win, but 36,000 showed a few days later for free funny-nose glasses ."
Baseball writing relies as much on what the fan brings to the work as it does on the writing itself. Even the best is unlikely to convert the sport’s detractors (F. Scott Fitzgerald: "Baseball is a game played by idiots for morons’’). This fan gap is described perfectly by Mungo in Confessions from Left Field (Dutton, 1983). "Baseball is the only sport in which the Perfect Game is one [where] nothing happens at all — no hits. runs, walks, errors, no men on base. I met an 80-year-old man who had seen only one major-league game in his life. Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. ‘Nothing happened,’ he complained, but everybody went crazy.’”