Classic review: The Armchair Book of Baseball

Let the games begin!

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[The Monitor occasionally reprints material from its archives. This review originally ran on Nov. 20, 1985.]  There's a rumor spread about by scientists and songwriters that the days grow short as you reach September, November, and on through the winter months. Baseball fans know this isn't true.

For them, the longest days of the year stretch maddeningly from October's final game right through the following April, when the games resume....

I've found The Armchair Book of Baseball edited by John Thorn to be a truly miscellaneous anthology weighted toward the best baseball writing of the past 20 years and determined, as its editor emphasizes, to avoid duplicating the contents of the standard anthology in the field: Charles Einstein's three-volume "Fireside Book[s] of Baseball'' (1956-68).

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Mr. Thorn includes 61 prose and verse selections arranged alphabetically by author. There's a great deal of assorted commentary and humor, not all of it equally interesting. Scientist Stephen Jay Gould explains `"The Extinction of the .400 Hitter'' memorably and succinctly (". . . the boundaries of baseball have been drawn in and its edges smoothed. The game has achieved a grace and precision of execution that has, as one effect, eliminated the extreme achievements of early years'').

Other writers look to "extreme achievers'' of the past, in such vivid pieces as Gay Talese's profile of Joe DiMaggio in retirement ("The Silent Season of a Hero''); Thomas Boswell's insouciant evaluation of "Mr. October,'' Reggie Jackson; and Red Smith's tribute to Howard Ehmke, the unlikely veteran hero of the 1929 World Series.

Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First'' comedy routine comes across surprisingly well on the printed page, and Russell Baker's imaginary interview with Yankees' president George Steinbrenner (on the subject of firing employees) is wryly amusing. But few readers will find anything funny in the labored "Quotations from Chairman Pete [Rose],'' or much worth preserving in the boring, overheated prose of the late celebrity-sportswriter Jimmy Cannon.

There are several good poems from May Swenson, John Updike, and Robert Fitzgerald (the graceful "Cobb Would Have Caught It''). There are excerpts from baseball fiction (by Ring Lardner, Robert Coover, and John Sayles) – and from classic nonfiction books like Roger Kahn's "The Boys of Summer'' and Robert Creamer's "Babe'' (his great account of Ruth's final days).

It's perhaps just as well that Thorn offers only two speculative essays that attempt to define baseball's appeal (there's been a bit too much of this in recent years, anyway). Yale president A. Bartlett Giamatti's "The Green Fields of the Mind'' acknowledges the sentimentalism that is at the heart of fan-dom ("I need to think that something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game'').

And Philip Roth's "My Baseball Years'' contends that the game as played (and followed) some 30 years ago was a genuine socializing force, "a kind of secular church that reached into every class and region of the nation and bound millions upon millions of us together in common concerns, loyalties, rituals, enthusiasms, and antagonisms.''

I've omitted mentioning many pieces that no fan will want to overlook – but must single out three for special attention.

Lawrence Ritter's interview with Red Sox and Yankee pitcher Marty McHale (an outtake from his incomparable "The Glory of Our Times'') vividly recalls the major leagues in the years before 1920. Journalist Steve Wulf offers a colorful profile of former big-league left-hander George Brunet, still pitching in the Mexican Leagues, now in his late 40s.

And Roger Angell's "The Web of the Game'' summons remarkable resonance from his understated account of his observation, in the company of 91-year-old "Smoky'' Joe Wood, of a breathtaking collegiate pitching duel between Ron Darling and Frank Viola (both now successful big-leaguers).

These three essays in particular, and in varying degrees their 58 companion pieces, suggest the essential truth of Jim Bouton's memorable observation (in his "Ball Four''): "You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.''

Even those of us who never played the game can feel that tug, and will welcome the vicarious satisfactions to be found in this splendid and entertaining book.

Bruce Allen is a former Monitor book critic.

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