Monday, June 22, 2009

Five Books of baseball

(1.) John R. Tunis, The Kid from Tomkinsville (1940). Roy Tucker, a rookie pitcher who wins fifteen straight for the Brooklyn Dodgers, suffers an injury that leaves him unable to pitch again, but painfully works his way back to the majors as a .300-hitting outfielder. In a famous passage in American Pastoral, Philip Roth calls it “simply written, stiff in places but direct and dignified,” about the game of baseball back before it was “illuminated with a million statistics, back when it was about the mysteries of earthly fate. . . .” He also says that it is “gripping to boys”—it is a boys’ book—but grownup men will read it with surreptitious absorption.

(2.) Mark Harris, The Southpaw (1953). Some readers prefer Bang the Drum Slowly (1956), which served as the basis of the best baseball movie of all time, but the sequel is even better after reading the original Henry Wiggen novel. A small-town rookie lefthander makes it to the Bigs—and in New York to boot! He “don’t speak the King’s English,” Harris wrote in a later preface, “nor the Queen’s neither.” And half the fun is the book’s language. Although a comedy, it is a surprisingly exciting account of a tight pennant race: a combination that almost no baseball books are able to bring off.

(3.) Lawrence S. Ritter, The Glory of Their Times: The Story of the Early Days of Baseball Told by the Men Who Played It (1966). An oral history, although you would swear it isn’t. Ritter, an economics professor, interviewed twenty-two ballplayers who appeared in the majors between 1898 and 1946, and then edited the transcripts—lightly, he says in the preface. From the first paragraph what strikes you is the style of the players’ conversation. Here is Rube Marquand, opening the book: “My nickname what it is, you probably automatically assume I must have been a country boy. That’s what most people figure. But it’s not so. Fact is, my father was the Chief Engineer of the city of Cleveland, and that’s where I was born and raised.”

(4.) Philip F. O’Connor, Stealing Home (1979). No connection whatever to the Jodie Foster movie of the same title. O’Connor’s novel is about Little League. That’s right. Little League. The theme is now familiar: a man turns his life around by coaching a team of boys. (Hoosiers was not filmed until seven years later.) Even so, the treatment remains fresh, because O’Connor was the first, and because he does not sentimentalize it. More amazingly yet, his game accounts are unexpectedly heart-pounding. The novel is set in a small city south of Toledo, hardly the center of the American literary universe, and the main character is a longtime Mud Hens’ fan.

(5.) The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (1988; new ed., 2001). James is the one who is always blamed when those who are more interested in baseball mythology complain that the game is being buried under a million statistics. As I have tried to explain, James is a dedicated myth-buster who seeks to study baseball as if it were as important as any other human activity. What is rarely understood about him is that he is primarily a writer, and a good one. He excels at the brief sketch. Perhaps his best-known comment is what he wrote about Danny Ainge, who tried to play second and third base for the Toronto Blue Jays (1979–’81), after starring as a point guard on the Brigham Young University basketball team. James’s evaluation of Ainge’s promise as a ballplayer? “Dribble, dribble.” The Abstract is full of quirky information, and quirkier writing, and is endlessly fascinating for the true baseball fan. It’s a good introduction to the game for new fans too.

No such list would be complete without naming the worst baseball book of all time. Hands down it is Michael Chabon’s Summerland (2002). Permit me to quote from my own essay on Chabon: “In an interview with Salon, Chabon explains that he wanted to ‘get at baseball’ through this novel, but he fails because for him baseball is merely an occasion for lyricism. He quotes a sentence from Summerland that his daughter pronounced ‘nice’ when he read it aloud: ‘A baseball game is nothing but a great slow contraption for getting you to pay attention to the cadence of a summer day.’ No, it isn’t, any more than cream cheese is a ready smooth device for measuring the contours of a bagel.”


R. T. said...

Your list of baseball books is a catalyst for a spontaneous recollection:
1. Malamud's THE NATURAL
2. Kennedy's IRONWEED (though it involves a former baseball players)
3. And a nonfiction title from George Will from several decades ago (though I cannot recall the title).

D. G. Myers said...

My view of The Natural is here. Suffice it to say that Tunis believes in baseball mythology while also remaining closely in touch with the game as it is actually played, while Malamud is innocent of the latter.

D. G. Myers said...

The Will title you are thinking of is Men at Work. I'd prefer to spend my leisure in a different way.

R. T. said...

With respect to expenditures of leisure time, though not necessarily in response to your comment about George Will's book, I recall many, many months over many, many years at sea (during my previous career) when I would keep encroaching insanity of absolute boredom at bay by reading anything and everything that I could borrow, beg, or buy while floating around the Indian and Pacific Oceans (and other annoyingly large expanses of salt water). That phase of my life has left me with an eclectic approach to reading that embraces, tolerates, and endures all sorts of books (whilst always trying to find something commendable in them so that I feel somewhat less guilty about the ways in which I have held mental breakdowns at arm's length). The curious thing about it all is that I now and then suddenly recall reading books that I thought were long gone in the erosions of my memory. Catalysts--such as your posting--induce the most surprising recollections. One final point: I shall now have to find and read a copy of the Tunis novel.

Jonathan said...

W.P. Kinsella has had a career-long interest in baseball. He has written:

Shoeless Joe Jackson Goes to Iowa (Short Stories)
Shoeless Joe (Novel)
The Iowa Baseball Confederacy (Novel)

Jonathan said...

Good Grief!!

After my first comment to this post, I did a bit of digging online and came up with the following bibliography for Kinsella and Baseball.

Kinsella is probably best known for his short story that was later adapted into the movie "Field of Dreams".

I didn't realize he had written so much on the sport. I know him more for his non-baseball writing.

Jonathan said...

Last time today, I promise.

Within the bibliography I just sent, the third link from the top (Aitken), will lead you to a secondary bibliography of "Criticism and Scholarship on Baseball Fiction".

Thought you might find it interesting.


D. G. Myers said...

Thanks for the bib, Jonathan. I am allergic to Kinsella, but I love book lists.

Some other baseball books to avoid:

• Robert Coover, The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Prop.

• Philip Roth, The Great American Novel

• Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer

• Charles Einstein, Willie’s Time

Some baseball books to consider:

• Douglass Wallop, The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant. Basis of the musical Damn Yankees and an atmospheric retelling of the Faust legend.

• Tom Clark, Champagne and Baloney. The Beat poet covers Charlie Finley’s A’s.

• Christy Mathewson, Pitching in a Pinch. Perhaps the first ghost-written sports autobiography, but a wonderful look at the early days of the sport.

jim prentiss said...

List of baseball books to read:

Two by David Halberstam:
1."The Summer of '49" (excellent story)
2."October 1964"

Roger Angell:
1. "The Summer Game"
2. "Late Innings"
3. "Season Ticket"

Tom Boswell:
1. "The Heart of the Order"
2. "Why Time Begins on Opening Day"
3. "How Life Imitates the World Series"

jeff mauvais said...

The HISTORICAL BASEBALL ABSTRACT just missed the list of the fifteen books which have most influenced my thinking. Bill James lost in the bottom of the ninth to James Joyce -- ULYSSES. If most of your readers are literary major leaguers, I'm obviously low Class A, if that!

VEECK AS IN WRECK is also an essential baseball book for me. I spend a lot of time at minor league ballparks, where the spirit of Veeck is still alive.

Richard said...

George Will's baseball writing is even worse than his political writing.

Anyway, it's great to see the Bill James praise. Also a major influence on my thinking, primarily through the annual abstracts pre-dating the great Historical book. My favorite among many short quips is from the year he wrote brief "strengths" and "weaknesses" at the beginning of each player's profile. For one player he wrote: Strengths: Potential; Weaknesses: Actual. Perfect.

Also, it's helpful to hear from a Roth fan that The Great American Novel is to be avoided. I haven't read anything he wrote between Portnoy and The Ghost Writer.

D. G. Myers said...

I largely agree about Will, although occasionally he will surprise you. Typically, though, I shy away from writers who adopt the magisterial pose.

About Roth. The decade between 1969 and 1979 are the wilderness years. Portnoy’s Complaint represented his break with his earlier novel-of-manners style, but he thrashed around for a decade before discovering Nathan Zuckerman. The first version of Zuckerman in My Life as a Man is unrecognizable in comparison with The Ghost Writer and after.

The creation of Nathan Zuckerman has been one of the great triumphs of American literature.

D. G. Myers said...

I am not a huge fan of David Halberstam either. (Can’t seem to put the political writing out of my mind while reading him.) Teammates, a small book, is pretty good, though. It is about Dom DiMaggio (olav hashalom), Bobby Doerr, and Ted Williams, and their relationship as teammates on the Boston Red Sox. The three great ballplayers carry the book, and Halberstam largely gets out of the way.

A book I should love to read would be a similar volume on the L.A. Dodgers infield of Garvey, Lopes, Russell, and Cey. They didn’t get along, of course, but remained intact longer than any other infield foursome in baseball history.

R. T. said...

Richard's castigation of and your tepid reaction to George Will surprises me. Perhaps my memory is flawed because I think I recall rather enjoying the book. Now, I am faced with a challenge: read MEN AT WORK again, since it was a long time ago under singular circumstances when I first read it, and see if my recollections were mistaken. I wonder if Richard's reaction is based on Will's writing (as is yours) or is based on politics (which seems incongruous with a book about the intricacies of baseball). Well, enough about George Will.

Richard said...

R.T, I don't like Will's politics, but also don't think he's a good writer. I admit my assessment of his baseball writing in particular is not based on a reading of Men at Work but on numerous other baseball-related pieces he's written, which had the cumulative effect of putting me off trying his books.

D. G. Myers said...

I agree with Richard. Will’s tone of solemnity toward the game is difficult to stomach. (Though if you want a baseball book that is difficult to stomach, try Summerland. Harry Potter meets baseball in prose by Walter Pater.)

R. T. said...

Indeed! Perhaps I need to look again at Will's book and reevaluate; after all, one's circumstances and contexts do very much affect one's reading experiences, so perhaps my station-in-life at the time of my reading had much to do with my dimly recalled positive reactions. Interesting, isn't it, the ways in which a person's reading interests and sensibilities change over time; some of the books I despised when I was younger were erroneously excoriated, and some of the books that I embraced cause me embarrassment now. Perhaps Will's book is among the latter. We shall see.

Buce said...

I'm surprised this thread has gone on so long with no mention of Ring Lardner's You Know Me Al

D. G. Myers said...


You Know Me Al is a pioneering book, and deserves respect as such. But let’s fact it, Lardner’s short stories about baseball (“Alibi Ike,” most famously, but also “My Roomy” and “Horseshoes”) are far better. The best thing about You Know Me Al is that Mark Harris’s Henry Wiggen novels could not have been written without it.

No one has mentioned the boys’ writer Claire Bee, whose Chip Hilton books were the most important in my library when I was a kid. I was constantly pestering my parents to buy me the next one.

Jonathan said...

I think I mentioned Chip Hilton in response to your initial post about sports fiction.

Re. Chip Hilton and Baseball - The one story I remember has Chip go to work at an iron foundry/steel mill where he plays for the company ball team; eventually (if I remember right) discovering that one of his teammates is telegraphing pitches for the opposition.

As a boy, I read most of them, but seem to have only remembered the one.

shade said...

I largely agree with your assessments, especially about the fact that Bill James is a superb writer. But I don't think The Universal Baseball Association... is to be condemned as a failed book about baseball but rather to be celebrated as a largely successful book about a failed intellectual's ill-fated attempt to reduce baseball (and so, life) to mathematics.

Jonathan said...

Talk about pulling up old discussions!

I found this link in an auction from this past September. Not only could he pitch and hit, but apparently readers were to believe him a novelist as well. I wonder at what point the general reading public became aware of ghost-writers?

The description: Bound in green cloth with an embossed black lettering and illustration of Babe Ruth on the front cover, this antique volume is a scarce first printing of Babe Ruth's famous children's baseball novel. The copyright is by the H.K. Fly Company, but not published by them. A ten-page biographical sketch of the famous baseball player precedes the actual prep school novel. Pictorial dustjacket depicting Babe Ruth swinging bat is present and reads on front cover: "This is the first baseball story by the greatest batter our national game has ever known..."

Thought you might find this interesting.

Jonathan said...

If you haven't seen this recent post over at "Neglected Books"...

Hope all is well.