If you're game, this is the book

Monday Book Review

September 26, 1994|By James H. Bready


THE AGE of multi-media productions brings us the game, series or season and the video, the movie or TV show and the book. Could the Diamondscreen at Oriole Park bring us an instant, grand-scale replay of the current public television special, Ken Burns' survey of baseball's first 150 years? We'd have to sit there for 18 1/2 hours -- pretty long, even without rain delays.

The age of labor-management delays brings us, at least, time to PTC examine a 486-page, both-hands book containing 530 pictures, no statistical tables and a consistently entertaining text; plus index and bibliography.

The method repeats that used in 1990 to produce "The Civil War," the book follow-up to a shorter public television series by the same folks. (Mr. Ward, the lead writer, is a former editor of American Heritage magazine.) Between the two overlapping media, television has the advantages of sound, of early motion pictures, of still-picture panning; a book has the advantages of variable-time reader attention and cutlines.

Sometimes they cancel out. At one very brief point in TV's Inning Two, a photo of Merwin "Jake" Jacobson appeared (copied by the film crew that last year spent five days at the Babe Ruth Museum here). Jake, the great International League Orioles outfielder, is surrounded by admiring kids. But it was up to viewers to recognize him, 70 years after: the show had no caption, no voice over, to help the modern fan. As for "Baseball" the book, that picture's not in it.

The book does have these things in it: outstanding coverage of the 1946-47 breaking down of the race barrier (Jackie Robinson and, growing rich in the process, Branch Rickey); excellent profiles of the superstars (Babe Ruth, to the life); superb reproduction of old-time photos, as assembled by Mark Rucker, Dennis Goldstein and others in the greatest hunt yet; excellent coverage of the Negro Leagues; an artificial breakdown of the material into even decades that works out better than you might expect; at every 10-year interval, a self-interview by a lineup of ranking writers (skip it? well, it is interesting that Bill James, the figure superfilbert, doesn't dream in numbers); photos of uniformed women players; lamentably skimpy treatment of the first, original major league, the 1871-75 National Association; and good coverage of the relations between players and owners, which have been bad for a very long time. Funny, how few heroes the owner class has bred.

The humor's great. It was a Bostonian who first suggested that the initial in George H. Ruth Jr. stood for Hercules. And Jimmie Foxx, known to some as "Beast," who in youth "wasn't scouted; he was trapped." All hail that early nickname, "Death to Flying Things" (here appended to Jack Chapman, but Bob Ferguson bore it first.)

What's missing from "Baseball" are delights for most fans interested in a single franchise. For instance, that huge event locally 40 years ago -- the return of Baltimore to the American League -- rates a single sentence, surely an afterthought: " . . . the Browns . . . shifted to Baltimore to become the Orioles." Memorial Stadium -- no mention. Oriole Park at Camden Yards, mention but no picture. Much Earl Weaver, no Paul Richards. Look not for Jack Dunn and his 1919-25 Seven-Straighters (the minors are to seek elsewhere). Wasn't there a World Series in 1983? Maybe a later edition will mention Cal Ripken. In truth, 28 is a good many franchises, and Baltimore fares better than Toronto, Montreal, Minneapolis, San Diego. There is a great deal of New York and Boston.

There is also a sizable amount of fulminating on the meaning of baseball, the meaning of America, and the many interactions between the two. Each, it would seem as we fill an empty September by turning pages or switching on the set, has problems. Well, in the Dominican Republic youth isn't restless; it plays baseball. Now if the occupation forces could get the Haitians next door interested in this engaging form of national pastime . . .

James H. Bready, who saw Babe Ruth play, writes from Baltimore.

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