Bygone Baseball: Savoring the Playoffs

THE importance of its pennant races was always a big part of baseball's appeal. Unlike other sports, with their meaningless regular seasons and endless playoffs, baseball played it straight: Winners advanced to the postseason; everybody else went home. And this, of course, was what created the drama, the intensity, the excruciating pressure that built up day-by-day throughout the campaign.

Alas, look for it now only in books (to recall those famous words about another lost time and place), for it is a phenomenon that is ``Gone With the Wind.'' The owners have sacrificed the uniqueness of their game on the altar of TV revenue, so this year for the first time we'll have ``wild card'' berths, preliminary playoffs, and the chance for a team that didn't even finish first to be World Series champion.

As this new era dawns, Dave Anderson appropriately reflects on its predecessor in his fascinating new book, ``Pennant Races: Baseball at Its Best.'' The Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist chronicles 15 historic years beginning with 1908 and ending last season, when Atlanta and San Francisco fought it out in ``the last pure pennant race.''

Not everyone will agree with all his choices. He anticipates two objections: What about the 1914 ``Miracle Braves'' and the ``Amazin' Mets'' of 1969? His answer: These were historic comebacks, not close races. ``To me,'' he writes, ``the essence of a pennant race is the tension that multiplies during the last few days of the season, if not the last day.''

Agreed. But how could he omit 1950, when the Whiz-Kid Phillies captivated the nation by beating out the heavily favored Brooklyn Dodgers on the final day? Maybe it's my Philadelphia roots showing, but has there ever been a more exciting finish: the winning run cut down at the plate in the ninth inning and a game-winning homer in the 10th?

One other critical note concerns a boyhood idol, Emil (Dutch) Leonard, who is mistakenly described twice as a left-hander. To casual fans, this may seem trivial, but aficionados acquire visual memories of how a player bats and throws - and any erroneous reference can be as jarring as hearing Pavarotti described as a baritone or Picasso as an impressionist. Well, maybe that's a bit extreme, but it's surely akin to calling Elizabeth Taylor a blonde. It's a no-no - especially in the case of a 190-game winner who might well be a Hall of Famer had he not pitched almost his entire 20-year career for truly terrible teams.

Sometimes Anderson gets bogged down in play-by-play, but for the most part he avoids this trap. Through voluminous research and interviews, coupled with his own experience, he has uncovered a mother lode of long-forgotten nuggets with which to spice his accounts. The effect is a wonderful sense of what a pennant race is (or, sadly, was) all about.

Younger readers might be tempted to skip early portions, but that would be a mistake. The very first chapter is one of the best: In it, Anderson describes ``baseball's most controversial moment in baseball's most controversial pennant race'' - Fred Merkle's so-called ``bonehead'' play.

Moving through the years, he recalls memorable events from every era - the Black Sox scandal, the Gas House Gang, baseball in World War II, Bobby Thomson's homer, Boston's Impossible Dream pennant, and much more. Along the way he brings back all those larger-than-life heroes of bygone days - Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, John McGraw, Babe Ruth, Dizzy Dean - up to today's superstars.

And of course he keeps everything within his pennant-race framework, clearly reminding us how much we'll be missing.

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