A triple for baseball fans

Monday Book Reviews

June 14, 1993|By John Goodspeed

THE LIFE THAT RUTH BUILT: A BIOGRAPHY. By Marshall Smelser. University of Nebraska Press. 592 pages. Illustrated. $16.95 paperback.

PLAY BALL: THE LIFE AND TROUBLED TIMES OF MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL. By John Feinstein. Villard Books. 427 pages. $22.50.

A PICTURE POSTCARD HISTORY OF BASEBALL. By Ron Menchine. Almar Press. 135 pages. Illustrated. $17.70.

FOR literate fans, it's a pretty good year for books about baseball. So try any or all of these.

"The Life That Ruth Built" is a reprint of a biography, first printed in 1975, of Maryland's most famous native (better known even than Wallis Warfield Simpson) -- the "Babe" of Baltimore, George Herman Ruth Jr. (1895-1948).

The author, Marshall Smelser, was for many years a historian at the University of Notre Dame. His "life" of Ruth -- the title alludes to Yankee Stadium in New York, often called the "house that Ruth built" -- is one of the two best biographies of the Bambino, the other being "Babe: The Legend Comes to Life," by Robert W. Creamer, published in 1974.

Mr. Smelser tends to soft-pedal Ruth's boozing and whoring and racism, but he doesn't ignore them. His book has far more depth than "The Babe Ruth Story," by Bob Considine, and any of the Babe Ruth movies.

Why was Babe the greatest? Because he was first a great pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, then a great hitter for the Yankees. And his highest pay, considered astronomical at the time, was less than one-tenth the minimum pay of major league players today.

John Feinstein, who lives in Bethesda and does cogent commentary on sports for National Public Radio, is promoted by his publisher as author of "the best-selling sports book of all time," "A Season on the Brink." That book was about basketball. This one, Mr. Feinstein's sixth, is an obsessively detailed study of the 1992 major league baseball season and the (more or less) relevant career moves and personalities of the players, managers, owners, agents, umpires, lawyers, families, friends, sports writers and radio and TV announcers who had anything at all to do with that season.

It's a book for baseball fans who read and saw and heard much about the '92 season and want to know more, a whole lot more.

In "Play Ball," readers get a good deal of inside information -- for example, how Cal Ripken Jr.'s contract negotiations contributed his batting slump; how foul-mouthed most baseball players are; how Marge Schott, the Cincinnati Reds owner, is a tightwad. Preoccupation with big money by everyone involved except the ticket buyers accounts for the "troubled times" in the book's title.

Unfortunately, "Play Ball" lacks an index. Obsessively detailed books should have indexes.

Ron Menchine, a radio and TV announcer who lives in Long Green, near Baltimore, and was once the voice of the Washington Senators, is also a collector of postcards illustrated with photos of major league ballparks and baseball players, many of them produced in Germany almost a century ago and now very rare.

About 200 of them are reproduced here, including the only known postcard souvenir that pictures the American League park where the Baltimore Orioles played in 1901 and Terrapin Park, where the Baltimore Terrapins played in the short-lived Federal League. There are also an unintentionally comical, macho portrait of Billy Sunday, the ballplayer turned evangelist, and a rare one of Jack Bentley, of Silver Spring, "the Babe Ruth of the International League."

Mr. Menchine covers a lot of baseball history in his brief picture captions, and his book, quaintly nostalgic in feeling, is probably a must for the fan who collects scorecards, autographed balls and chewing gum cards.

John Goodspeed writes from Easton.

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