The Pastime, field of nightmares

May 23, 2004|By Richard Peterson | Richard Peterson,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

The controversy and protests surrounding Michael Lewis' best-selling Moneyball and Pete Rose's disappointing My Prison Without Bars are the latest reminders of how baseball books at their worst distort the history of the game and manipulate the emotions of its fans.

Since baseball's beginnings, writers have created a cosmogony of the game, replete with a myth of origin, a fabled history and a pantheon of immortals.

Their books, like Lawrence S. Ritter's evocative The Glory of Their Times and Roger Kahn's compelling The Boys of Summer, validate baseball as the stuff of dreams, while reminding readers of A. Bartlett Giamatti's claim that the game is also "designed to break your heart."

Other writers, however, have used baseball's storied history as the means to a more political or personal end. Their books, instead of celebrating the game and honoring its players, offer ideological histories, vengeful biographies and memoirs, and morally evasive and hypocritical fictions.

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Regarded by baseball historians as the standard work on the early game, Albert G. Spalding's America's National Game (University of Nebraska Press, 550 pages, $19.95), first published in 1911, is far more fable than history. Even Spalding, in his foreword, disavowed "any pretense on the part of this work as a history of baseball." Describing himself as founding father, victorious general and savior, Spalding tells the one-sided story of how he led baseball out of its early days of rowdyism and gambling to the promised land of a baseball monopoly ruled by the baseball magnate, "a strong man among strong men."

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More than 80 years after Spalding wrote his owner's guide to baseball history, John Helyar wrote the players' version. Published in 1995, Lords of the Realm (Random House, 640 pages, $29) advertises itself in its subtitle as "The Real History of Baseball," but the book is more the testament of a new ideology in which unionized ballplayers, freed from tyrannical ownership by the great emancipator Marvin Miller, have finally reached their own promised land of free agency and multimillion-dollar contracts. Though ideologically opposed, America's National Game and Lords of the Realm share the view that greed is good for baseball.

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No matter what the ideological perspective, the story of baseball - from its gambling and bribes to its fixation on steroids - has always had its share of scandals, but, thanks to Al Stump, it also has its own moral monster. Published in 1996, Stump's biography of Ty Cobb, Cobb: A Biography (Algonquin, 464 pages, $15.95), gets back at the Detroit Tigers Hall of Fame outfielder for their earlier collaboration on My Life in Baseball: The True Record and the indignities Stump suffered in working with Cobb on that book. The new biography tells the story of a ballplayer who played like a demon because he really was a demon. After spending nearly a year with a delusional and dying Cobb, Stump asks: "Was Cobb psychotic throughout his baseball career? The answer is yes."

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A few years after breaking Ty Cobb's record for career hits, Pete Rose was banished from baseball for violating Rule 21, which prohibits betting on games.

My Prison Without Bars (Rodale, 288 pages, $24.95), published early this year, was supposed to be Rose's long-awaited public confession that he gambled on baseball games - including those played by his own team - and his subsequent free pass to reinstatement in baseball and election to the Hall of Fame. The book backfired, however, because of Rose's clumsy self-portrait as a helpless and misunderstood victim and his personal attack on anyone who ever crossed him. No baseball mea culpa, Rose's book tells readers he "can't act sorry or sad or guilty" because he wasn't "built that way."

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In his Inferno, Dante consigns those who have committed acts of treachery to the ninth circle of hell. In the ninth circle's innermost ring are those who betrayed their lords and benefactors. In W.P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe (Houghton Mifflin, 265 pages, $12), published in 1982 (and adapted as the 1989 film Field of Dreams), Joe Jackson, while proclaiming that he would "play for the Devil's own team just for the touch of a baseball," gets to play on a lovingly constructed field with his fellow Black Sox. Baseball's most popular novel, Shoeless Joe creates a baseball heaven for those who most betrayed baseball and gets away with it by claiming that the "Unlucky Eight" truly loved the game and were the powerless victims of baseball ownership.

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