Dan Gutman's 'Banana' peels off baseball's cover

April 05, 1995|By PHIL JACKMAN

It was a Frenchman who once uttered, "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball."

But Jacques Barzun never got around to telling the inquisitive where they could learn baseball. The playground? Listening to John Lowenstein on an Orioles telecast on Home Team Sports? By reading that popular page-turner "Winning," the life and times of Earl Weaver?

If Barzun was still around dispensing advice these days, undoubtedly he would say, "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of baseball had better learn 'Banana Bats and Ding-Dong Balls.' "

A somewhat unique name for a gem of research and information by Dan Gutman is just rolling off the presses from Macmillan-USA. As luck would have it, it's just in time for those folks who might be having trouble revving up interest for the game recovering from a failed suicide attempt.

Who among us did not know that the reason the bleachers are called the bleachers is: In the early years of the century, ballparks were built of wood and, beyond the outfield, there were seats exposed to the sun. While providing an opportunity for fans to work on their tans, the sun had a way of, yes, bleaching the exposed planks.

Those old parks became piles of kindling after a while and dangerous. In 1894 alone, three ballparks burned down and, here, getting the Fourth of July off to a roaring start in 1944, old Oriole Park burned to the ground.

Author Gutman literally takes every single piece of equipment associated with baseball and gives you its origin, all the things that have been tried to improve them, the harebrained inventions and innovations, plus all the things that are part of a day at the apple orchard.

For instance, have you ever heard the expression "They always taste better at the ballpark?" That's a reference to hot dogs, of course, and they owe their existence to the Grand Old Game or, more accurately, concessionaire Harry Stevens, a transplant from Derby, England no less.

Stevens had started out peddling scorecards in a ballpark in Columbus, Ohio, and somehow wended his way to New York, where it was a very cold afternoon in the Polo Grounds one day. The park being located in a German neighborhood, Stevens sent out for some sausages known as "dachshunds," boiled them and slipped them into a bun for handling purposes. "Get your red-hots" vendors screamed and the customers ate them up.

Bats? They came from everywhere, up to including the DiMaggio Brothers, Joe, Dom and Vince, carving them out of the oars from their father's fishing boat. The original "Louisville Slugger" was fashioned for a player named Pete Browning, who was the hero of a lad whose father was a woodworker named Bud Hillerich, who fashioned a masterpiece out of a bedpost.

Browning played 10 years in the American Association (an untitled major league from 1882-1891) and batted .343, but never received two cents worth of consideration for the Hall of Fame. Pity.

The only major-league outfielder who played every inning of every game during a season and didn't make an error, Danny Litwhiler (no relation to Cal Ripken), was coaching at Michigan State in 1974 when he read in the college newspaper about campus police catching speeders with a "gun." Voila, the JUGS speed gun. Subsequently, Litwhiler became known as "The Thomas Edison of Baseball" as he perfected new and better ways to do things.

How did home plate get its name? For starters, the original home base was round, just like a plate. Then it went octagonal, thence to a diamond shape. But umpires couldn't call the inside and outside corners accurately (snicker), so they experimented until they came up with today's five-sided slab umpires still seem to be having trouble with, according to most pitchers.

The Balata Ball, used during World War II when the rubber was needed for military purposes. The "Iron Mike" pitching machine, named at Wake Forest University, probably for the legendary flinger Joe "Iron Man" McGinnity, who used to pitch 400 innings per season as a matter of course.

In tracing the evolution of ballparks, Dan Gutman arrives at Toronto's SkyDome and dubs it "The Eighth Wonder of the World." Actually, that title was accorded Houston's Astrodome in 1965, which was later disputed by one of the owners of the Astros who said that dome wasn't the eighth wonder but that the rent they charged was.

The author concludes after his 232-page effort, "I hope I haven't written a [yawn] History of Sporting Goods in America. The idea here, as with most baseball books, is to tell a bunch of cool stories you probably haven't heard before."

Gutman succeeds admirably and, in soft cover, the price is right.

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