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Classic review: The Armchair Book of Baseball

Let the games begin!

(Page 2 of 2)

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).

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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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