Two ambitious works pitch nostalgic look at hits and runs of earlier eras

March 29, 1992|By George Grella

DIZ: THE STORY OF DIZZY DEAN

AND BASEBALL DURING THE GREAT DEPRESSION.

Robert Gregory.

Viking.

402 pages. $22.

THEY ALSO SERVED: BASEBALL

AND THE HOME FRONT, 1941-1945.

Bill Gilbert.

Crown.

276 pages. $20.

As any scholar of the game knows, baseball provides a richness of subjects for study and contemplation; the proliferation of books on myriads of aspects of the sport in the last couple of decades testifies to its endless possibilities.

Robert Gregory's "Diz" and Bill Gilbert's "They Also Served" fall into the two most common and, alas, most abused categories of writing about the game -- biography and history. Instead of merely trumpeting the usual adoration of some big star or imitating a grand original, however, both authors attempt rather more ambitious tasks: placing their subjects against the larger background of American culture at critical points in its history.

Both books look back to an increasingly distant past, reminding us that baseball inevitably invokes nostalgia. A certain charm attaches to the memory of a time when only 16 teams played in the majors (if you count the St. Louis Browns) and Washington was first in war, first in peace and last in the American League. The books also suggest that even the most difficult times improve in retrospect, especially when almost any previous decade seems a good deal more honest and innocent than the ones most of us have known.

Robert Gregory's biography of Dizzy Dean tells a baseball story that resembles one of our native American forms, the tall tale. Jay Hanna Dean, the son of an Arkansas sharecropper, a grade school dropout, was a L'il Abner in spikes, a big, dumb country boy with a swelled head who could do little with any competence except throw a baseball better than just about anyone. He was not only one of the great pitchers of his generation, but also its greatest box office draw, filling the stands at a time when many fans couldn't afford the price of a ticket and many teams steadily lost money.

Dean was the most famous member of the Gashouse Gang, a rowdy St. Louis Cardinals team that included Leo Durocher, Ducky Medwick, Pepper Martin ("The Wild Horse of the Osage"), a Dizzy, a Daffy (his brother, Paul), and a Dazzy (pitcher Dazzy Vance). In 1934, he won 30 games (Paul won 19), starting and relieving, sometimes pitching every other day; he led the Cardinals to the National League pennant and a World Series victory over the Detroit Tigers. Those fans who believe that today's ballplayers are spoiled egomaniacs may be surprised to learn about Dizzy's innumerable salary disputes, holdouts, walkouts and sit-down strikes.

While attending to Dean's triumphs on the field and his misbehavior off it, the author shows something of America in the Depression, when other country boys, such as John Dillinger, Clyde Barrow and Pretty Boy Floyd, also made headlines. He quotes a great many of the outstanding sportswriters, who wrote a much more florid brand of prose in those days and even often broke out in verse. In the great traditions of the art, they frequently shilled for the home teams, manipulated public opinion in favor of the owners and played favorites among the athletes.

"Diz" is generally amusing and enlightening, in large part because of the engaging, larger-than-life character at its center. Although "They Also Served" deals with baseball during World War II, an era as compelling as the Depression, it lacks such a unifying personality. It confronts instead the generally familiar story of baseball when most young, healthy American males were wearing very different uniforms, and the major leagues were populated mostly by the very young, the relatively elderly and the physically unfit.

Mr. Gilbert continues his story of wartime baseball with his own memories of early adolescence, when he was a passionate fan of the old Washington Senators. The author also weaves the personal histories of innumerable players through his larger story of the year-by-year progress of each wartime season. The accounts of the individual athletes are sometimes amusing, sometimes sad and sometimes even inspiring.

The author interviewed a great many of the survivors of that era. He tells once again the stories of such players as Pete Gray, the courageous and talented one-armed outfielder; Buckshot Brown, the wild-throwing, 16-year-old shortstop, and Joe Nuxhall, who pitched for the Cincinnati Reds when he was 15. He mentions the many players, such as Bob Feller and Hank Greenberg, who sacrificed important years in their careers to enlist in the military, and those athletes whose achievements have been unfairly questioned because some of them occurred during the war years.

Whatever the importance of its subject, the stories in "They Also Served" are much more familiar and therefore much less entertaining than those in "Diz." Both books, however, demonstrate that baseball's history, and the nation's, intertwine in sometimes more complex and significant ways, changing and growing together. They also show that, despite the distance separating us from the Depression and World War II, the game still speaks to us of some of the best of America in compelling and energetic ways.

Dr. Grella teaches English at the University of Rochester. He has written frequently on baseball.

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