The pastime: history, fiction, lives

Books On Baseball

March 10, 2002|By Edwin O. Guthman | Edwin O. Guthman,Special to the Sun

''What is the attraction in baseball? Your answer is out there on the bleachers, several thousand strong. Those leaping, howling, white-shirted dervishes have given it to you. It is the melodrama which makes baseball. ... The leading men of this national melodrama form interesting contrasts. Some of them have found it a long road from the sandlots to the pay roll of a big league team; others jumped to fame in a single week. Personal appearance counts for nothing; nationality counts for nothing; it is the man who 'delivers the goods' who is always sure of his welcome from the lynx-eyed critics on the sunny seats."

That quote from Charles E. Van Loan in Baseball: A Literary Anthology edited by Nicholas Dawidoff (Library of America, 725 pages, $35) truly captures a theme that runs through books about the national pastime published each spring. This spring is no different. Take your pick.

Besides Baseball: A Literary Anthology, which opens with Ernest Thayer's "Casey at the Bat" and contains the stories and interviews of 72 writers and baseball luminaries ranging from Satchel Paige's "Rules for Staying Young" to George Plimpton's "Final Twist of the Drama" -- when Henry Aaron broke Babe Ruth's home-run record -- there are books on baseball history, fiction and biographies on or coming on the market.

For history there's Breaking the Slump: Baseball in the Depression Era by Charles C. Alexander (Columbia University, 353 pages, $29.95), Perfect by James Buckley Jr. (Triumph Books, 320 pages, $24.95), which details the 16 games in which pitchers set down all 27 batters they faced and Clearing The Bases by Allen Barra (Thomas Dunne Books, 304 pages, $24.95).

Barra, whose column appears in The Wall Street Journal and Salon.com, thoroughly researched some of the pastime's most contentious, persistent arguments such as who was better, Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle? Or the better pitcher, Juan Marichal or Bob Gibson? Or what if Jackie Robinson had been white?

Barra presents statistics -- "the life-blood of the sport" -- galore to outline the shades of each argument and closes each chapter with his opinion, but he makes clear it is only his opinion -- not the gospel. He looks hard at Babe Ruth, compares Roger Clemens with Lefty Grove and Sandy Koufax and decides who was the most overrated and most underrated players over the last 30 years -- Pete Rose vs. Tim Raines.

Who is the "greatest player" of the 20th century? Barra provides a myriad of statistics and facts and his choice will take most readers by surprise.

In fiction, Carroll & Graf has reissued Frank O'Rourke's The Heavenly World Series (320 pages, $25), which he wrote in 1988, a year before he died. It's a rollicking account of a fictional Fall Classic with O'Rourke-created players and real players competing. Long Gone by Paul Hemphill (Ivan R. Dee, 213 pages, $14.95) features Stud Cantrell, a hard-living veteran, and Jamie Weeks, a rookie second baseman , striving amid romantic and other distractions to lead their team, the Graceville (Florida) Oilers, from the cellar to the top of the Class D Alabama-Florida League. It is a lively, grim, raunchy story of life in a minor league in the summer of 1956.

For a real look inside baseball, pitcher Jim Brosnan's The Long Season, first published in 1960 has been reissued (Ivan R. Dee, 276 pages, $16.95) with a new preface by the author. Brosnan, who hurled for the Chicago Cubs, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds, tells it like it was in the clubhouse and on the diamond in the 1959 season.

But saving the best for the last, Ernie Harwell: My 60 Years in Baseball by Tom Keegan (Triumph Books, 272 pages, $24.95) is an authorized biography of one of baseball's legends. This season Harwell, 84, will start his 42nd year as the voice of the Detroit Tigers and as his fellow sports broadcaster, Bob Costas, was quoted: "In baseball, some things are seldom seen, like the triple play or a perfect game. Even less likely is encountering someone who doesn't like Ernie Harwell."

That was very evident when the Tigers management, apparently seeking to appeal to a young audience, fired Harwell at the end of the 1991 season, touching off a huge, withering, emotional reaction from fans and sportswriters. New management brought Harwell back for the 1993 season.

The book traces Harwell's life from a tongue-tied boy in Georgia to a teen-ager who signed an application letter to the Sporting News as "W. Earnest Harwell" and was hired as a correspondent, through Marine Corps service in World War II and as a broadcaster, beginning with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948.

Baltimore fans will remember Harwell as the voice of the Orioles from 1954 to 1959, after which he went to Detroit. In tracing Harwell's career, Keegan fitted into the course of the book articles that Harwell wrote for the Sporting News, the Detroit Free Press and other publications.

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