Ah! The National Pastime: irony, artistry, literature On Books

August 09, 1998|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Putting aside spiritual sports (I think of mountaineering and fly-fishing), no game has inspired literature as have baseball and boxing. Once as a young man, I spent an evening in Madison Square Garden with A.J. Liebling, a hero of mine, and a few other ecstatic boxing enthusiasts. But even in their company, the grace of pugilism still eluded me.

Baseball is a different story.

Why? Because it endures immortally as the most civilized and most intelligent of all the sports contrived by humankind. To be sure, the sport has evolved. Some may say it has grown; others may say it has eroded. A reflection of one of the more bemoanable changes is deliciously delivered by Edwin O. Guthman, another hero of mine, on these pages today.

Guthman was a legendary investigative reporter in the 1940s and 1950s, a close aide to Robert Kennedy, and then a distinguished newspaper editor and now a professor. He deplores the outbreak of literacy among sportswriters, others rail against an intellectual seizure of the game. They argue that the fanciest work by the fanciest writers has little to do with the guts of the sport.

Still, for my taste, there are few lovelier celebrations of any mystic rite than Roger Kahn's "The Boys of Summer" (HarperCollins, 480 pages, $15, paperback, 1972) and Roger Angell's "The Summer Game" (out-of-print,1984). There is beauty in George Will's "Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball"

(HarperCollins, 384 pages, $13) - and, I doubt not, in Will's latest book, appraised today by Guthman.

I would offer that anyone who has not at some youthful point memorized in substantial part or in whole Ernest Lawrence Thayer's 1888 "Casey at the Bat" cannot truly be called an American, whatever passport he may vaunt.

It all has to do with irony and artistry, with the richness of the metaphors for life that rise as inexorably from baseball's culture as does the grass in a sun-drenched outfield.

I was born on the island of Manhattan. Though a European enclave on the edge of America, that city's sport was and is baseball. There were three major league teams. The Dodgers graced Brooklyn. In the Polo Grounds at the northernmost edge of Manhattan were the Giants. Within sight of that venue, but in the Bronx, were the Yankees, who wore pinstripe suits.

Everyone I knew as a child passionately favored the Dodgers. They regarded the Giants with indifference. They looked on the Yankees with every bit of the savagery a still Depression-scarred populace believed was earned by men who dressed like bankers - and some of whom seemed to behave like them: the ultracool DiMaggio, the unflappable Allie Reynolds, Whitey Ford. Mostly, I think, they were detested for approximating perfection.

One autumn when I was a boy, the Dodgers confronted the Yankees in that most New York of all natural phenomena, a Subway Series - frequent in the 1940s and 1950s. The wrong team won. There was fury in the air at a picnic I attended. A discussion of the merits of teams occurred.

Both fathers and sons were engaged, more or less democratically, as baseball has a way of encouraging. In the midst of some technical disputation, one of my generation looked to his father with intense earnestness and spoke.

"Dad," he said, "the Yankees were on the German side in the war, weren't they?"

No one laughed. No one quibbled. Nothing I knew then or have learned since would say he was wrong.

About a third of a century later, I went back to New York to take up the job of editorial page editor of the Daily News, the dominant newspaper of the city (the Times was the paper of high-rent Manhattan, the burbs and beyond). I had never worked as a local reporter in my home town, so I asked the chiefs of each of our borough bureaus to guide me on a couple of days' tour of their precincts.

In Brooklyn, I was taken to government offices, police stations, schools, court houses and other officialdoms. But the core of my curriculum there was in bars - saloons owned and operated by local political figures, a splendid Brooklyn tradition.

In the first of a half-dozen such landmarks, I was introduced to the proprietor. He confronted me with what I subsequently found to be a ritual put to all outsiders.

After pouring a drink for all, including himself, the leader slid a small bill-pad and a pencil across the bar at me. "The three most evil men in history!" he fairly shouted.

I was off balance. I didn't get it. With an edge of impatience, he spoke again: "Write down the names of the three most evil men in history!"

What would you do? I tried to work it out, and still didn't get it. I said so. The barman took back the pad. There was a naked contempt in his face. He scribbled intently and shoved the pad back at me. It read: "Adolf Hitler/Joseph Stalin/Walter F. O'Malley."

O'Malley, of course, was the man who in the autumn of 1957 took the Dodgers to some place in America's western wilderness, a frontier settlement that all right-thinking New York baseball fans know has - or very soon will have - been dropped into the depths of the Pacific Ocean by a mud slide, or obliterated by earthquakes, or burned to crisps by brush fires, or all three. Baltimoreans know that sense of the O'Malley perfidy by recalling the dastardly removal of the Colts to Indianapolis by Robert Irsay in the dark of the night of March 28, 1984.

I may be slow, but I can learn from superior hearts and minds. At the next stop, a pad was shoved across at me. Without hesitation, I scribbled. O'Malley led the list.

An hour later, there had been no resolution of the question of whether George Steinbrenner should be prosecuted for war crimes.

Ah, baseball! The playing field that brings us all together.

Pub Date: 8/09/98

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