Ed. by Nicholas Dawidoff
Library of America -- 721pp -- $35
No doubt the late Leroy Robert "Satchel" Paige would have gotten a kick out of page 318 of Baseball: A Literary Anthology. There, the eminently quotable star pitcher of the Negro Leagues and, later, the Cleveland Indians, would find examples of his own enduring wisdom:
"Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move."
"Avoid running at all times."
"And don't look back. Something might be gaining on you."
That's cool. But wander a few pages forward or back, and the reading is just as rich. Preceding Paige is John Updike's classic New Yorker article on Hall of Famer Ted Williams during his final hours with the Boston Red Sox. And following Satchel's entry, Bill Veeck Jr., the late baseball impresario and onetime St. Louis Browns owner, tells how he hired 3-foot-7-inch Eddie Gaedel and sent him to up to bat suited in a uniform with the number "1/8." When he was in his crouch, Gaedel's strike zone measured all of 1 1/2 inches.
Those passages alone should earn this book a spot on the night tables of many baseball lovers. And they are just a small sampling of the reportage, prose, and even song lyrics that editor Nicholas Dawidoff has assembled into a lively history of the national pastime.
Dawidoff, author of The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg, a biography of big-leaguer and World War II spook Moe Berg, had about 120 years of baseball history to cram into 721 pages. That's about as easy as striking out four batters in an inning. Despite the constraints, Dawidoff has done an admirable job of creating a cohesive collection from such varied scribblers as Damon Runyon, Philip Roth, Amiri Baraka, and even Tallulah Bankhead.
It's the simple stories that resonate most. In an excerpt from veteran Chicago sportswriter Jerome Holtzman's oral history, No Cheering in the Press Box, newspaperman Richards Vidmer describes the scene in the New York Yankees clubhouse as a dying Lou Gehrig revealed why several days earlier he'd taken himself out of the lineup. And, from Jim Bouton's Ball Four, there's a reminder of why baseball misses colorful 1960s Yankee first sacker Joe Pepitone.
Like the faces at a ballpark, the writers Dawidoff has chosen are black and white, sons and daughters. Their connections to the game are just as various. One of my favorites comes from Molly O'Neill, a New York Times food columnist and, since long before that, sister of former Yankees star Paul O'Neill. If you shed a tear while reading this book, it will be over O'Neill's tale of her father's pride at seeing the kid brother making it into the pros.
Of course, Dawidoff left a lot out. No mention of Abbott and Costello's "Who's On First?"--an outrage. And nothing from Fred Lieb's classic Baseball As I Have Known It? An oversight, for sure. Still, they're bound to be high on Dawidoff's list if he tries for volume two. By Mark Hyman