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There will be no crack of the bat, no Cracker Jacks, no peanuts, no nothing in Canada when baseball has its regular-season opening day on April 1. The pandemic is keeping the Toronto Blue Jays south of the border, in Florida, in the friendly confines of their stadium in Dunedin, which – small consolation! – at least bears the Canadian name of TD Ballpark.
But fear not, bleacher bums. The glories of the great North American game are within your reach, on your bookshelf and, depending on the restrictions in your home province, at your bookseller. Hockey and lacrosse may be the historic Canadian pastimes, but neither has spawned a literature remotely as rich as baseball, which has inspired writers (and readers) to compare their favourite game and its vicissitudes to life itself.
That may be – and here is one of those sports metaphors that are an unfortunate but inevitable characteristic of essays like this one – a classic first-base stretch. But the sporting arts and the literary arts have their happy hardball collision between the hard covers of books, some of them produced by literary giants such as Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth, some by gifted baseball bards such as Roger Kahn and Roger Angell, a few by crossover writers best known for politics, such as Richard Ben Cramer and David Halberstam, and even one or two by ballplayers themselves, including Jim Bouton and Bob Uecker.
“Writers are drawn to baseball because it has a dramatic arc,” says David Maraniss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Barack Obama whose Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero (Simon & Schuster, 2007) is the elegiac story of the Pittsburgh Pirates hero. “I didn’t decide to write about Clemente and baseball only because I love the game. It was also because it was a great story – and because baseball offers a lens into American history and sociology.”
Just the titles of some of the great baseball books have a certain lyricism: Baseball When the Grass Was Green, The Summer Game, The Boys of Summer, The Glory of their Times, Lords of the Realm. Each has a special place in the baseball-book hall of fame. And if baseball is a game of catch across the generations, the feats and the folkways of earlier generations have as much power in the imagination of the true fan – and in the books prized by the true fan – as do the contemporary exploits of Mike Trout, Cody Bellinger, Christian Yelich, and the Blue Jays’ Nate Pearson and Jordan Groshans.
An earlier, pre-television generation was reared on radio accounts or play-by-play re-enactments such as the ones Ronald Reagan created from Chicago Cubs telegraph reports in Des Moines, Iowa; that cultural explosion comes alive in Willie Morris’s remarkable Mississippi memoir North Toward Home (Houghton Mifflin, 1967), where he argues, “Because back home, even among the adults, baseball was all-meaning; it was the link with the outside.”
In those years, especially in rural areas far beyond the range of all-clear-channel radio stations, young people learned much of their baseball lore from innocent kid-lit books like the Chip Hilton stories (Hungry Hurler, Clutch Hitter), volumes like The Kid Comes Back by John R. Tunis, and novels like The Kid Who Batted 1.000, by Bob Allison and Frank Ernest Hill. All these are available on various used-book websites, but like their creased covers and yellowed pages, they will seem dated to the contemporary reader.
In an invitingly retro way, so might You Know Me Al (George H. Durham, 1916), Ring Lardner’s well-loved fictional account of a ballplayer’s passage through early professional sports, full of remarks like this one, about a feckless pitcher: “His curve ball broke about 1/2 a inch and you could of wrote your name and address on his fast one while it was comeing up there. He had good control but who would not when they put nothing on the ball?’' Then again, Bernard Malamud’s The Natural (Harcourt Brace, 1952) is forever young, inviting and full of wisdom beyond the dugout such as this: “We have two lives; the one we learn with and the one after that.”
Baseball has a cameo role – appearances in relief, you might say – in the pages of Philip Roth, in both Portnoy’s Complaint (Random House, 1969) and The Great American Novel (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1973); in Thomas Wolfe’s Of Time and the River (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1939); and, surprisingly, in Jacques Barzun’s God’s Country and Mine, which includes this insight about America: “That baseball fully expresses the powers of the nation’s mind and body is a merit separate from the glory of being the most active, agile, varied, articulate and brainy of all group games.” Some of us still believe this, even in football season.
With the advent of broadcast ball games and full-season cable outlets, books have become a complement to baseball rather than a substitute for it. But like everything about the diamond game, which moves to its own sultry summertime rhythms, the past remains a vivid part of the game’s culture.
That is why, for example, readers still turn to Wait Till Next Year (Simon & Schuster, 1997), Doris Kearns Goodwin’s heartwarming story about growing up a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. The pre-Los Angeles Dodgers are a rich nostalgists’ niche, with Roger Kahn’s Boys of Summer (Harper & Row, 1972) leading a veritable parade of books about a team known affectionately as the Bums, which actually is the title of Peter Golenbock’s oral history of the team (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1984).
Indeed, there is no end to books about the heroes and heroics of past baseball seasons. The best-loved may be Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, which purists know began as a 1960 John Updike essay in The New Yorker but which qualifies as a book because the Library of America reproduced it in a hardcover edition in 2010. Written in five days after Ted Williams’s last appearance at the plate in Boston, it bears the most famous opening in the literature of baseball, quoted by heart by Red Sox fans, a one-sentence ballad about the ball yard that has sat at 4 Jersey St. for 109 years: “Fenway Park, in Boston, is a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark.”
Of course Williams – who nursed a hatred of the press equalled only by the former U.S. president now in his Mar-a-Lago exile – is the subject of many volumes by the writers he demeaned as the “knights of the keyboard.” He is on the periphery, and yet at the centre, of Halberstam’s The Teammates (Hachette, 2003), the story of the 2,100-kilometre road trip that Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky and Dom DiMaggio set out on to visit the dying baseball legend. Teddy Ballgame, as he was known, is, along with Joe DiMaggio (Dom’s more celebrated brother), the centrepiece of Halberstam’s Summer of ’49 (William Morrow & Co., 1989), the chronicle of an especially memorable postwar baseball season. And Joe DiMaggio is the subject of the second-best book by Richard Ben Cramer, whose What it Takes, about the presidential candidates of 1988, was a prominent feature of The Globe’s essay on campaign books that appeared late last summer. His Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life (Simon & Schuster, 2000) has the same range as the political book, which remains the most insightful look at the old centrefielder and Little League coach now known as President Joe Biden.
Perhaps DiMaggio’s greatest outfield heir was Mickey Mantle, more colourful, if not more durable, than the Yankee Clipper. Mantle is captured vividly in Golenbock’s racy 7: The Mickey Mantle Novel (Lyons Press, 2007) which – warning to parents – has passages more suited to D.H. Lawrence than to Lawrence (Yogi) Berra. A more conventional view of Mantle emerges from The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood (Harper, 2010) by Jane Leavy, whose Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy (HarperCollins, 2002) is, like Koufax’s Sept. 9, 1965, masterpiece (14 strikeouts!), a perfect game.
Otherwise, the baseball biography is a mixed genre, some splendid splinters amid blown saves. Those written swiftly after a glittering-sunshine season tend to fade with the change of weather. Those written by ballplayers themselves are even more unreliable outings. By far the most influential was Jim Bouton’s Ball Four (World, 1980), which Time magazine included in its list of the 100 greatest non-fiction books of all time. By turns honest (“The older they get, the better they get when they were younger”) and funny ( “Has anybody noticed that we haven’t won a game since we ate that chicken á la king?”) and, most of all, irreverent, it ripped the cover off baseball, portraying the rowdy, bawdy and gaudy life of the modern player.
The life of the Black ballplayer is, as they say, an entirely different ball game. That comes to life in Only the Ball Was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams by Robert Peterson (Gramercy, 1999) and in Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend (Random House, 2009), the story of the legendary and ageless Satchel Paige by Larry Tye, whose later biographies were of Robert F. Kennedy and Joseph McCarthy.
All grandstand grandees acknowledge that two books can be credited with changing the old game of baseball. The Bill James books, beginning with his Bill James Baseball Abstracts (first appearing in 1977) and Michael Lewis’s Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (Norton, 2003) introduced the baseball public to the value of statistics and analytics in a tradition-drenched game that traced its roots to the 19th century.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, baseball has been regarded – more important, it has regarded itself – as the thinking man’s game, a notion that sometimes is traced to Christy Mathewson, who pitched three shutouts in the 1905 World Series. (In my experience, female fans have an even more cerebral approach to the game, and indeed the editor who commissioned this essay is a woman.) One way or the other, the deeply thinking fan in the grandstand will have read Mark Harris’s affecting Bang the Drum Slowly (Knopf, 1956), which is magnificent from its first words to its very last line (“From here on in I rag nobody”), which is universally recognized as one of the finest ending sentences in all of literature.
That thinking fan’s bookshelf almost certainly will include Shoeless Joe (Houghton Mifflin, 1982) by Edmonton native W.P. Kinsella, best known for its 1989 film adaptation as Field of Dreams starring Kevin Costner, James Earl Jones and Burt Lancaster, and for the deathless whispered (but often misquoted) line, “If you build it, he will come.” And perhaps that bookshelf also includes The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (Scribner, 1999), by the horror master Stephen King, himself a Red Sox fan and whose title ballplayer pitched in 73 games for the Carmine Hose, the team’s antiquated nickname, the year before the book was published. And every thinking fan’s library includes the indispensable Baseball: A Literary Anthology (Library of America, 2002), edited by Nicholas Dawidoff, which might be regarded as the bullpen of great newspaper articles and columns, along with excerpts from the classics of baseball literature. Alongside it might be Ballpark (Knopf, 2019), by the Pulitzer-winning architecture critic Paul Goldberger, whose great insight is that a green ballpark in an urban area is an infusion of rus in urbe, Latin for “country in the city.” The result, Goldberger argues in a book at once approachable and academic, is that baseball stadiums represent a city with “a garden at its heart, and as such evokes the tension between the rural and the urban that has existed throughout American history.”
Extra innings: In my last year in college, I foolishly enrolled in Introduction to Macroeconomics and struggled through, among other syllabus assignments, a volume titled Money (Basic Books, 1973). I didn’t understand a word of the discourse on banking, monetarism, unemployment and inflation, but I was drawn to the allusions about baseball produced by one of the co-authors, Lawrence S. Ritter. Later I discovered that Ritter was also the author of a more palatable book called The Glory of Their Times: The Story of the Early Days of Baseball Told by the Men Who Played It (Macmillan, 1966). I skipped whole chapters of Money. I read every word of Glory. I got a B- in that economics course. But I have an A+ memory of the baseball. You will, too.