"We ain't like New York," says the rural protagonist of one of the stories in this collection ("The Spitter" by Paul Fisher). "Here everybody comes to a game , so they ain't no need to write 'em up."
Fortunately, for New Yorkers (and other baseball enthusiasts) the great American pastime has been more often celebrated by exceptional writers than any other sport -- and few other subcultures -- in our national life. Some of America's finest writers have been inclined to narrate the games, the plays, the players and the byplay involved with life on and near the diamond. "The Baseball Reader" contains some of the choicest examples of this pairing.
It is an anthologized chronicle of the game's history, and most of its selections are taken from the three highly prized out-of- print "Fireside Books of Baseball" (published between 1956 and 1968).
It covers a broad miscellany of the game's moments, real and imagined, from baseball's roughly organized, salty origins after the Civil War to the sixth game of the 1977 World Series, in which Reggie Jackson hit three home runs. It is a volume filled with the same data, crises, cupidity, heroism, and wonder each baseball season can provide.
Its contributors, who write for fan and general reader alike, include the likes of Marianne Moore, Shirley Jackson, Thomas Wolfe, Mark Twain, Kenneth Patchen, James Thurber, Sherwood Anderson, Roger Angell, Phillip Roth, Jacques Barzun, Ogden Nash, P. G. Wodehouse, and John Updike.
Some of the pieces interlock; others stand alone. There are, for example, two treatments of Ted William's last game, one by Ed Lin from the inside and the other by John Updike from the stands. The cumulative picture that emerges of baseball's most poised, uncompromising hitter is intimate, revelatory, and remarkable.
Equally good is Al Stump's narrative of the final months of Ty Cobb's life, which reveals the wellsprings of the Georgia Peach's passion for success in baseball.
A match in its effectiveness and a model of charm, wit, and droll gravity is Richard Donovan's ramble on Satchel Paige, arguably the greatest pitcher who ever lived. A black athlete, and one among far too many who played his best years before major league baseball discovered the rectitude or the commercial value of employing nonwhites, Paige's range, speed, deceptiveness, and intelligence as a pitcher and as a philosopher are brilliantly recounted in this portrait.
There are accounts of particular games and plays as well: Don Larsen's perfect Series game; Willie Mays's perfect catch of Vic Wertz's line drive; Bobby Thompson's play- off-winning homer; Sandy Koufax's fourth nohitter.
And then there is Casey Stengel's testimony before a congressional committee investigating whether professional sports are monopolies. This is an aria in Stengel's own inimitable voice -- incoherent, accurate, amazing and delightful, a patter comparable only to Abbott and Costello's famous "Who's on First?" vaudeville sketch (also included in this collection).
If anything, avid fans will find "The Baseball Reader" too short. It does not include enough material about the relationship of blacks to the game or enough of the material written since the third of the Fireside Books was published.
However, as Satchel Paige has said, "Man, the past is a long and twisty road, " and at the very least this compendium is faithful to that avenue's hills and curves. For the devoted, the only thing that beats a good baseball game is a good double-header. The only thing that might have improved this book is twice as much of it.