National pastime looms in literature

Books On Baseball

March 26, 2000|By John Roll | John Roll,Special to the Sun

Hallelujah. Baseball fans: Another season has begun. After a long winter, such unpleasantness as John Rocker's mouth, Darryl Strawberry's demons and Ken Griffey Jr.'s power play are soon to be consigned to distant memory. Now it's the games that matter.

But let's be honest, barring a miracle like 1969 (remember '69?), this summer is going to drag on forever for Orioles fans. But I can offer some solace as the Bronx Bombers rise inexorably to the top. It comes in the form of this spring's crop of baseball books now hitting the shelves.

Alas, it's not a particularly promising crop of prospects this year, not unlike the Orioles minor league system in recent years. But there are a few legitimate prospects out there worth taking a close look at.

The best is "Red Smith on Baseball" (Ivan R. Dee, 347 pages, $24.95). For those who might have forgotten, and shame on you if you have, Red Smith was the best sports columnist who ever was or will be. Last year, Editor & Publisher commissioned a panel to select the 25 most influential newspaper journalists of the 20th century. Red Smith was the only sportswriter on that list.

In his day he was "The Shakespeare of the Press Box," and his work was taught as literature in many college classrooms. He won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1976, long overdue. Although he wrote, wonderfully, about all sports, his best work was saved for baseball, and the best of those columns are collected in this work. Red not only understood the game as few have, but he was also an extraordinary wordsmith.

An example: On the day after Jackie Robinson died at age 53, Red wrote a column that noted Robinson's place in American history, but he went on to devote most of his column to Jackie the player.

Red recalled a late-season game in 1951, with the National League pennant on the line, when the Phillies loaded the bases with two outs in the bottom of the 12th. It's very late in the day. Eddie Waitkus smashes a "low, malevolent" liner destined for center. Instead, Jackie flings himself horizontal, suspends in midair and picks up the ball inches off the ground. "Of all the pictures [Robinson] left upon memory," Smith wrote, "the one that will always flash back first shows him stretched at full length in the insubstantial twilight, the unconquerable doing the impossible." History also notes that Robinson won that game in the 14th with a two-out home run.

It was also in 1951 that Bobby Thomson hit the "Shot Heard Around the World" that eventually sank the Dodgers in a three-game playoff. Thomson's blast also inspired Smith to compose perhaps the greatest lead in the history of baseball writing: "Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again."

Smith's columns also are refreshing because there is virtually none of the cheesy moralizing that too often passes for sports commentary these days.

Another interesting read in this spring's crop of baseball books is "Baseball Dynasties: The Greatest Teams of All Time" (W.W. Norton & Co., 376 pages, $29.95). Authors Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein try to answer the unanswerable: Which is the best baseball team in history? The question is especially intriguing in light of the recent rise of another Yankees juggernaut.

The Neyer-Epstein combination is an interesting choice for this material. Neyer, a columnist for and disciple of stats guru Bill James, is a firm believer that baseball can be reduced to statistical formulations, the more complex the better. His equation for determining the best team ever requires a MIT graduate to understand, much less explain. By contrast, Epstein is a veteran baseball man who's worked in the front offices of the Baltimore Orioles and the San Diego Padres.

Their different perspectives make for fascinating give-and-take. Without giving away their conclusions, it pains me to say that most Orioles fans won't be disappointed, although Yankees fans will be less disappointed.

There are two baseball novels on deck this spring, and both have their good points. "Havana Heat" by Darryl Brock (Total/Sports Illustrated, 260 pages, $24.95) is a fictional treatment of the last act of Luther "Dummy" Taylor, a deaf-mute righthander who won a very respectable 115 games for the New York Giants between 1900 and 1908. The story takes place in 1911 as Taylor tries to make a comeback after three years in the bush leagues nursing a dead arm.

Taylor convinces the legendary John McGraw to give him a look-see while the Giants barnstorm in Cuba. The novel is poignant and humorous and moves with the crispness of a perfectly turned double play.

Randall Beth Platt's "The 1898 Base-Ball Fe-As-Ko" (Catbird Press, 336 pages, $24) aims strictly for humor. It's a classic Jack and the Beanstalk story.

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