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What happened to the game?

A Fortnightly Review of

Branch Rickey
by Jimmy Breslin
$19.95 Viking 160pp

Steinbrenner:
The Last Lion of Baseball
By Bill Madden
$16.99 ITBooks 496pp

Stan Musial:
An American Life
by George Vecsey
$26 ESPN 416pp

By Geoffrey Norman.

BACK IN THE ARCADIAN American past – when the evening news took up 15 minutes of television time (commercials included) and was broadcast in black and white – summer was for baseball.  Congress would close up shop and the members would head for home.  (Yes, really.) Yet somehow the Republic did not perish.

So instead of politics, the glue that held the culture together was baseball.  In the cities you could go to the park and watch a ballgame without having to take out a bank loan.  Out in the vast beyond, you could listen to the games on the radio or watch the Game of the Week on Saturday with Dizzy Dean doing the play-by-play. Millions listened to Ol’ Diz call the action, unforgettably describing a hitter as, “Standing cool and confidentially in the box and taking a hard slider for strike one.”

If you followed baseball – and it seemed like everybody did – you had your favorite team and your favorite players and you would check the morning papers to see who had won, what the standings were, and then study the eye-straining box scores to see if, say, “the Great DiMaggio,” as Hemingway’s fisherman, Santiago, called him, had gotten a hit.  It was momentarily thrilling, in a way that is now hard to imagine, for fans a thousand miles away, to tease out of the agate type the fact that the Yankee Clipper had gone 3 for 5 with a home run.

IN THAT BLACK-AND-WHITE epoch, baseball was myth and what we knew about the players was legend.  Which was just fine: you probably don’t need to know about Hector’s fears of sexual inadequacy and such. Sufficient that he had major league persistence and could swing that broadsword.

When we read about baseball back then, it was game coverage written by artists who were masters of the 800-word form and the two-hour deadline.  Red Smith.  Jimmy Cannon.  W.C. Heinz.  You might not have been to the game – might never have seen a big-league game in person – but when you read those writers, you were there.  And it was heroic stuff, done in heraldic prose.

The closest we came to pulling back the curtain – and it wasn’t very close – was in fiction.  Most memorably that of Ring Lardner whom most remember, if at all, for writing the transcendent line, “Shut up,” he explained.  Lardner’s novel You Know Me Al and his story “Alibi Ike” are affectionate treatments of baseball players and their weaknesses.  You could read them without losing your innocence about the game.

But television came along, and by and by, you didn’t need to read the papers to see who had won the game.  If you hadn’t watched it – stuffed in among the commercials – then you had caught the recap when some blow-dried fool did all the scores from around the country, except on the West Coast where they hadn’t tossed out the first pitch yet – and why were they playing baseball out there anyway?

SO THE GAMES LOST their remote magic.  And the players soon followed.  I can’t be sure, but I think the first inside-baseball baseball book was a fine piece of work called The Long Season.  It was written by Jim Brosnan, a middling good pitcher who bounced around the National League (Red, Cardinals, Cubs) for a few seasons and, along the way, wrote about what big league baseball was like from the inside.  The Long Season chronicled the 1959 season and was published in 1960, dates that seem somehow portentous.

Brosnan wrote about what went on in the clubhouse, the bullpen, the dugout, the airplanes and the hotel rooms and lobbies where ball players spent long stretches of mostly idle time.  There was no profanity, vulgarity, or sex but the reader genuinely got the sense of what baseball was like.  Which is proof of Brosnan’s talent, not to say artistry.  The man had wit, in the best and largest sense of the word.  You could read the book today and find yourself smiling.

But Brosnan had opened doors.  It may not be fair to blame him for what followed but, still, what came after his ground breaking book has so utterly destroyed the old myths that you feel the need to blame someone.

ANYWAY, ABOUT A DECADE after The Long Season, fans were treated to Ball Four,  in which Jim Bouton, another big league pitcher, left in most of what Jim Brosnan had left out.  And since then, le déluge, until it is now hard to say which is less appealing to the one-time baseball fan – the game or its literature.

Pointless and depressing to run through the scandals and the tawdry revelations about the game, every one of which has its own book.  Too much is known about steroids, gambling, loveless sex and the rest.  Too little about the games.  There are no Red Smiths who can make you care about the sport.  We are invited, instead, to ponder the wreckage of, say, José Canseco.

No thanks.

BUT THE MILLS of sports literature grind on and here, in the fat part of August, when baseball should rule the world, I find myself with three baseball books written by three of the best: Branch Rickey by Jimmy Breslin; Steinbrenner by Bill Madden; and Stan Musial by George Vecsey.

The quick call?

All three are excellent.  No reader who is even moderately disposed to like sports books will be disappointed by any of these.  The authors can all turn a phrase and illuminate character in a gesture or a word.  You come away from each of these books feeling as though you know their subjects.  Like you’d enjoy eating dinner with Branch Rickey or having a beer with Stan Musial, while Steinbrenner, you think, can leave a voicemail.

IN HIS SHORT TAKE on Branch Rickey, Jimmy Breslin writes like – Jimmy Breslin.  Which, given the subject and the short length of the book (Breslin is a natural columnist) is just right.  And Breslin is a passionate man on the themes of New York City’s outer boroughs and race.  So even though the story of how Rickey brought Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers has been told before, it seems somehow fresh in Breslin’s telling.  And it is, beyond question, a great story.  Even heroic.

As Breslin tells it, “… baseball owners had tried to keep Robinson out of baseball by a 15-1 vote.  In giving a meticulous account of his Robinson adventure, Rickey was often unable to overcome shyness about his vote.”

Breslin, though, isn’t shy about the importance of breaking the color barrier in baseball in 1947.  It was genuinely a history-making thing and is well and justly celebrated in this small, tidy book.

But the book is less baseball than it is business and sociology.  Madden’s Steinbrenner, on the other hand, is a big, fat book and it is less baseball than business and pathology.

GEORGE STEINBRENNER WAS transmogrified by his death last year:  the paranoid, narcissistic bully he was in real life became a loveable, sentimental curmudgeon.  Which is manifestly untrue.  He was, if not a monster, then a pretty reasonable facsimile. He tyrannized everyone who worked for him, especially in the front office, though he didn’t hold back on the actual ballplayers.  Nothing … absolutely nothing that went wrong with the Yankees when he ruled the franchise was ever his fault.

For instance, there was a the year when it looked as though the Red Sox and the Yankees would finish the season tied for first place, which would require a one-game playoff to determine the winner of the American League pennant.  Question was: where would the game be played?  Fenway or Yankee Stadium?

The American League President, Lee MacPhail had the respective General Managers – Al Rosen for the Yankees and Haywood Sullivan for the Sox – settle the question by the flip of a coin.  In Madden’s telling:

When Rosen entered MacPhail’s office … Sullivan was already on the speaker phone, from Boston.

‘You’re right there, Al,’ said Sullivan.  ‘So why don’t you just go ahead and make the call.’

With that, MacPhail flipped a 50-cent piece into the air and Rosen called out, ‘Heads.’

‘Sorry, Al,’ MacPhail said.  ‘It’s tails.  If we need to have the playoff, it’ll be played at Fenway Park.’

All the way back to his office, Rosen dreaded having to make the call to Steinbrenner about this unhappy turn of events. Though he fully anticipated a scathing rebuke, he was not prepared for the owner’s incredulous reaction.

‘I’m sorry to tell you George, but we lost the coin flip,’ Rosen said.

‘You lost?’ Steinbrenner said.  ‘How could you lose?  What did you call?’

‘I called heads.  Why?’

Heads?’  Steinbrenner shrieked.  ‘You f___ing imbecile! How in the hell could you call heads when any dummy knows tails comes up 70 percent of the time.  I can’t believe it.  I’ve got the dumbest f___ing people in baseball working for me!’

Click.

And that’s one of the few funny stories in this book.  Most of the rest of them have you hoping that someone will take a club to this creep and bash his head in.  That he was so lavishly and lovingly eulogized on his death recalls the old Hollywood story about how one of the legendarily tyrannical studio bosses had died and thousands were at the funeral in Forest Lawn.  An actor (Red Skelton, in many accounts) is supposed to have surveyed the crowd and remarked, “Well, if you give the people what they want, they’ll turn out.”

Madden has written a good book but it is a book about an owner not someone who played the game with skill or grace.  Steinbrenner may have ownered well – his teams won a lot of championships – but none would ever say he did it with grace.

STAN MUSIAL DID PLAY the game and with consummate grace.  He was a hitter’s hitter with a .331 lifetime batting average, 3,630 career hits (fourth all-time) and 475 home runs.  In a game with a famously long season (Brosnan’s title was lyrically apt) when the distractions – especially of travel – make it possible for any player to lose concentration, Musial got 1,815 hits at home in Saint Louis and 1,815 hits on the road.  He was known by all fans of his era as “Stan the Man.”

And he is almost forgotten now.  Unlike two iconic ballplayers – and great hitters – to whom he was compared when he was playing the game: Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams.

In what is a serviceable account of Musial’s life and career, George Vecsey spends many pages wondering why this is so.  Musial was not an aloof perfectionist or an angry artist.  He did not marry Marilyn Monroe or fly Panther jets with the Marines in Korea.  He was a great ballplayer, nice guy, and good family man.

Borrrrring, as the kids would say.

Not really.  But the excitement of Musial was pretty much on the diamond and during the game, which is what fans of his time cared about – perhaps because it was what they were limited to.

They didn’t, one thinks on finishing these three books, know how good they had it.

Geoffrey Norman is the author of six novels, eight books of non-fiction – including Riding with Jeb Stuart: Hunting Adventures with an English Pointer – and a children’s book.  He writes for Sports Illustrated, Esquire, The Wall Street Journal and National Geographic, among other newspapers and magazines. 


More baseball in The Fortnightly Review: King George V meets Herb Pennock at a demonstration of baseball at Stamford Bridge, 4 July 1918. On the same page: Hugh Chisholm on baseball as cheerful, American propaganda.

 

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