Baseball's 'beginning to warm my ribs'

Monday Book Review

April 05, 1993|By Milton Bates

BASEBALL'S EVEN GREATER INSULTS. By Kevin Nelson Fireside Books. 210 pages. $9 (paperback).

BASEBALL IN THE AFTERNOON. Robert Smith. Simon & Schuster. 264 pages. $21.

THE summer game returns, and with it several new volumes on the pastime, including two as dissimilar as slugfest from pitching duel.

Slightest of these, in content as well as heft, is a forgettable attempt to assemble "Baseball's Even Greater Insults." As the title suggests, author Kevin Nelson took an earlier stab in that direction, and if -- as probable -- it was of the quality of this one, I'm glad the take sign was on.

Yes, insults can be biting, clever and funny as well as cruel; no, few of that genre adorn these pages.

The message here is that many of today's melange of players are not only overpaid and arrogant, but also bigots and unimaginative manglers of the language. Toss in owners, managers and umpires, and the scene fails to improve.

Delete all expletives from the mouthings of these mean-spirited whiners, and the book would be, blessedly, far thinner. Villains are predictable: Canseco, Clemens, Strawberry, Rickey Henderson, the Clarks -- Jack and Will. As for owners, there is the obligatory chapter on the reprehensible George Steinbrenner and a few references to the ignorant Marge Schott.

But take heart. This generalization, like most, distorts the truth. Brooksie and Cal live, as do the likes of Harold Reynolds and Dwight Evans. The rare quality quotes come from those just outside the playing field. Hear our own Jon Miller, lamenting the first 21-game losing streak and later sad performance of the 1988 Orioles:

"It's like they started off historically bad and then went into a slump." And of the dreary 1-11 Kansas City opening in 1992: "The Royals were rained out today. They're holding a victory celebration." From Bob Uecker: "If I was playing today, I'd get a million dollars. Is that scary or what?" Too bad, but the hunt here is hardly worth the trouble.

But well worth the trouble is Robert Smith's "Baseball in the Afternoon." Subtitled "Tales From a Bygone Era," this gentle, heartwarming stroll through the sport's earliest days is clearly a loving labor, as much a paean to the joy of carefree youth as a recollection of the origins of today's game and its predecessor versions.

The 88-year-old author, in his amble along post-Civil War to World War I paths, rescues and reveals many forgotten giants. Not least of the volume's charms is the recitation of colorful nicknames. Ruth is forever the immortal Babe, and there were Goose Goslin, Kiki Cuyler, Schoolboy Rowe and others of my own growing-up era.

But Mr. Smith informs of even more vivid monikers. A sampling: Lady Baldwin, Three Finger Brown, Orator O'Rourke, Boileryard Clarke, Pebbly Jack Glasscock, Still Bill Hill, Nuf Ced McGreevy and The Only Nolan. Exploited, tobacco-spraying, often uneducated colossi existed: Mike "King" Kelly, native American Louis Sockalex (the original Cleveland Indian), Sure-Shot Dunlap, Big Ed Delehanty (first launcher of four home runs in one game), all deceased by their early 40s.

We are reminded that the first black major leaguer wasn't Jackie Robinson. He was Moses Fleetwood Walker, a "lithe and learned man who studied at Oberlin College," an American Association (considered the majors) catcher in 1884. Then fell the shameful color curtain, and later titans like Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Rube Foster and Cyclone Joe Williams starred in black leagues.

A sprinkle of delightful Irishisms enhances the text. Even his own self, corrupt "Boss Tweed -- may his shadow never grow less!" gets a mention. An unregenerate, lifelong Red Sox fan, New Englander Smith was witness to the traitorous doings of Harry Frazee, who peddled Babe Ruth and other Boston heroes to the hated Yankees. How, then, does the author manage to maintain a charitable view of life? We only know that he does. Hear him:

"And nowadays, when I inhale the full and mellow fragrance of a new baseball glove or pick up a new baseball, gleaming like a jewel, I find it easy to summon the light of other years around me, with the moist caress of young grass, dainty as a christening, blessing my naked feet, the dawn chill just beginning to dissolve in the sun, the faint cries of long-vanished playmates ringing somewhere beyond the edge of sound, and the prospect of a whole day full of baseball beginning to warm my ribs like an embrace."

Sure and begorra, who's to resist the lad?

Milton Bates studied baseball on Baltimore sandlots and still lives here.

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