Luminaries, hot corners, gonfalons Books on Baseball

August 09, 1998|By Edwin O. Guthman | Edwin O. Guthman,Special to the sun

When did baseball stop being the national pastime? It bore that symbolic moniker for most of this century -- through two world wars with both presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt decreeing that baseball was too vital to the nation's psyche to interrupt play even though most of the best players ("luminaries" as they were known in those days) had gone into military service and with the United States Supreme Court granting it special exemption from the dreaded anti-trust laws.

No longer. Professional football and basketball have caught baseball or passed it in fan popularity at least according to some television ratings. Fan anger over the 1994 strike apparently has abated and attendance is rebounding, but the major league owners just boosted one of their brethern, Milwaukee Brewers owner Bud Selig, from "interim" to "permanent" commissioner to lead them into the 21st century and, if he gets his way, re-create the National and American leagues on geographical lines.

And mothers who transport their children to athletic contests are called "soccer moms," not "Little League moms," for crying out loud.

According to George Will and a good many other baseball aficionados baseball's popularity decline started in 1973 when the American League introduced the designated hitter. Will the columnist, TV commentator and ever-hopeful Chicago Cubs fan, has devoted the better part of two books, "Men at Work," published in 1990, and this year, "Bunts" (Scribner, 352 pages, $25), to blasting the designated hitter at every opportunity.

Even a courageous American League umpire, Durwood Merrill, denounced the DH in a delightful book, "You're Out and You're Ugly Too!" (St. Martin's Press, 270 pages, $22.95) and made stronger, more succinct case than Will did. "I have no use for the DH because it's a gimmick way past its time," he wrote. "Not only does the DH take strategy out of the game, it lengthens the A.L. game and makes it a lot more unwieldy.

"There's yet another reason for eliminating the DH that makes too much sense. By making the pitcher bat, you virtually eliminate the beanball wars. ..."

But other knowledgeable observers blame television for pro football and pro basketball's rise in popularity. Others point fingers at the contracts that pay players more in a year than most fans earn in a lifetime, or free-agency jumbling team identities every season or money-hungry corporations taking over teams and stadiums.

Me? I say baseball headed downhill when the sportswriters became literate.

Don't get me wrong. There've been some talented writers writing sports, such as Heywood Broun, Damon Runyon, Ring Lardner and Red Smith who, one of the most talented, Roger Kahn, immortalized last year in "Memories of Summer -- When Baseball Was an Art, and Writing About It a Game" (Hyperion, 290 pages, $12.95, paper edition). But did they realize what they were doing when they dropped baseball's special lingua franca from their columns and vivid accounts of the game?

The pastime hasn't been quite the same since the days when catchers donned the tools of ignorance instead of putting on masks and chest protectors, when twirlers hurled from the hill and greats like Lou Gehrig and Hank Greenberg held forth at the initial hassock (first base).

Infielders made twin killings instead of double plays. Nobody wrote about the outfield while such luminaries as the Pittsburgh Pirates' Paul Waner, his brother Lloyd and Chuck Klein patrolled the outer garden. Frankie Frisch of the St. Louis Cardinals and Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers won MVP honors with their bats and excellent play at the keystone sack (second base) and what an argument you could get claiming that the Cubs' Stan Hack handled the hot corner (third base) better than Cleveland's Willie Kamm.

In researching for evidence to support my theory, I pored over 20 baseball books, all published this year except "Memories of Summer." They included a well-written, readable novel, "The Man Who Once Played Catch with Nellie Fox" by John Mandarino (Academy Chicago, 262 pages, $22.50); broadcaster Jon Miller's candid, colorful "Confessions of a Baseball Purist" (Simon & Shuster, 269 pages, $24); catcher and broadcaster Tim McCarver's "Baseball for Brain Surgeons and Other Fans" (Villard, 344 pages, $23) and an assortment of encylopedias, guides, fact books, directories and almanacs.

Beyond statistical comparisons, longing for the old days was a common thread running through the books, expressed typically by Sports Illustrated writer Steve Rushin in "Road Swing -- One Fan's Journey into the Soul of American Sports" (Doubleday, 256 pages, $22.95) who answered a question -- "Where does all tradition go? -- with:

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