A promising spring roster of books on that national pastime: baseball
Bruce Allen reviews books regularly for the Monitor. BASEBALL is here again, and all's right with the world. The talismanic appeal of this game that is somehow much more than a game is confirmed by a welcome abundance of baseball books on hand to greet the new season.
The Summer Game (Ballantine, $3.50) reissues the first and best collection of Roger Angell's New Yorker essays. The most notable conclusions are empathetic fan's-eye accounts of the ''campaigns'' of 1962-1971, including the triumphs of those improbable heroes, the 1967 Red Sox and 1969 ''Miracle Mets,'' but the essays also take wary, intelligent looks at such mixed contemporary blessings as domed stadiums and the ''new breed'' of image- and dollar-conscious ball-players.
There are two other notable reprints. In Voices From Cooperstown (Collier, $7 .95), editor Anthony Connor presents dozens of brief reminiscences and anecdotes from 65 great players, arranged into an examination of the total playing experience (from ''The Boy'' through ''The Old-Timer''). It's inevitably uneven, but never uninteresting.
The Ultimate Baseball Book, edited by Daniel Okrent and Harris Lewine (Houghton Mifflin, $15.95) is a handsome, coffeetable-like production featuring dozens of fine photographs and a savvy running essay on the history of the game (by novelist David Nemec), interwoven with nine guest essays on great teams or players by various journalists and enthusiasts. Robert Creamer's tribute to ''The Old Orioles'' (before 1900) and Red Smith's account of a classic Cardinals-Athletics World Series (''Pepper Martin vs. Phila., 1931'') are especially appealing.
The offerings among baseball novels are, as always, intriguingly patchwork. David Carkeet's The Greatest Slump of All Time (Harper & Row, $14.95) takes a workmanlike, comic look at an unnamed championship team, all of whose members suffer from various forms (financial, familial, sexual) of depression. It's fun, though overplotted, and it's marred by an overly analytical omniscient narrative voice.
By contrast, Harry Stein's Hoopla (Knopf, $14.95), published last fall, is a book worth catching up to: a densely written novel about the 1919 Black Sox scandal that's also a pleasingly specific re-creation of its period. Stein divides the narrative between the White Sox's real-life infielder Buck Weaver and fictional creation Luther Pond, the sportswriter who breaks the sad story. The result is a many-leveled entertainment that has memorable things to say about the idolization of athletics and the imperfect humanity of athletes.
The ways in which baseball works on our imaginations are feelingly explored in Why Time Begins on Opening Day (Doubleday, $14.95), the second collection of essays by Washington Post sportswriter Thomas Boswell. Its 19 pieces are nicely balanced between tribute and analysis. It includes accounts of Boswell's trips to Cooperstown (for Hall of Fame induction ceremonies) and Omaha (for the 1982 College World Series). It also contains some knowledgeable profiles: ''The Shadows and Light of Jim Palmer'' effectively portrays the great pitcher's Jekyll-and-Hyde personality, and ''The Ripken Team'' is an admiring look at another Baltimore Oriole phenomenon, an entire family of quietly talented overachievers.
Boswell investigates the practices of continuously successful baseball organizations (besides Baltimore, he's especially partial to the St. Louis Cardinals as reconstructed by manager Whitey Herzog); the varieties of managerial temperament; and the different kinds of people who become third basemen, or catchers, or umpires. He's at his best when worrying through questions of baseball strategy or mourning the lost art of bunting, and the disappearing one of pinch-hitting.
Like all serious baseball fans, Boswell is a traditionalist who sings the praises of pitching and defense, and has little good to say about major-league expansion, free agents, or plasticized modern ballparks that look like ''mutant oil filters.''
He's sensitive, perhaps oversensitive, to the ''fourth dimension'' of nostalgia and tradition that's inherent in baseball. He becomes almost rhapsodic when playing that game few writers can resist - attempting to define the sport's appeal. Baseball is ''living theater and physical poetry,'' Boswell opines; it ''offers a kingdom built to human scale''; it's ''a heightened and focused form of our common experience.''
Elsewhere, he offers a sober backward look at the strike-interrupted 1981 season and concludes that this abomination might indeed have fulfilled the doomsayers' prophecies that baseball was on the way out - were it not for the emergence that wretched year of Dodger pitcher Fernando Valenzuela, an improbably Ruthian superman for whom the game was second nature.
Boswell lingers briefly over such unhappy insults to the game as George Steinbrenner's despotic foolishness and Billy Martin's maddening lack of self-control. But he reserves most of his attention for those who genuinely love the game and do it honor - whether they're phenomenons like Fernando or Cal Ripken or veteran stars like gracefully aging Tom Seaver or the unflappable Gaylord Perry.
I'll report on other baseball books as soon as the first compulsive seizures of baseball-watching begin to ease. Meanwhile, there is the unquestionable priority of the season itself. Let the games begin.