Batting Around Baseball Alternatives


As a major league baseball fan, you know the players are greedy and arrogant. The owners, on the other hand, are greedy, arrogant and incompetent, led by a man whose team is 27 1/2 games out of first place.

Both forgot long ago that theirs is the only sport that formally acknowledges the value of sacrifice.

So, if the players strike today and the World Series is canceled, where can a baseball fan get his fix?


Books and films on baseball might help, but which ones?

When it comes to novels and short stories of quality, the pickings are surprisingly slim for a sport that has dominated the national consciousness for so long.

In fact, Roger Angell, the dean of baseball writers and the New Yorker’s fiction editor for more than 40 years, almost never reads baseball fiction. “It is very hard to make up a baseball team that’s as interesting as any average professional baseball team you can see on any given day,” he said.

Still, conversations with some who have written about baseball produce a short list of memorable books. Batting first, of course, is Bernard Malamud’s “The Natural,” though both Angell and novelist/screenwriter John Gregory Dunne said they prefer Barry Levinson’s 1984 film adaptation to the book itself. Mark Harris’ four Henry Wiggen novels--”The Southpaw,” “Bang the Drum Slowly,” “A Ticket for a Seamstitch” and “It Looked Like For Ever” --have their partisans, including David Halberstam, who is at work on his second baseball book.

“ ‘Bang the Drum Slowly’ is my favorite baseball novel,” Halberstam said from Oregon, where he is researching the 60-year friendship of baseball greats Bobby Doerr, Ted Williams, Dominic DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky. “ ‘The Southpaw’ is also very, very good--underrated, really.”

Eliot Asinof’s long out-of-print 1955 novel “Man on Spikes,” recently reissued by Southern Illinois University Press, is regarded by many critics as a classic account of a minor league player’s 20-year struggle to make it to the majors. The same author’s reconstruction of the 1919 Black Sox scandal, “Eight Men Out,” is widely admired. So, too, are Angell’s “Once More Around the Park: A Baseball Reader” and Halberstam’s “Summer of ‘49,” an account of that year’s race for the American League pennant between the Yankees and the Red Sox. Roger Kahn’s “The Boys of Summer” also is highly regarded.

Novelist and screenwriter David Freeman would add two more titles to the fiction shelf. “My favorite candidates,” he said, “are Robert Coover’s ‘The Universal Baseball Association, Inc: J. Hen Waugh, Prop.’, which is about a guy who imagines an entire universe of baseball. It’s actually the granddaddy of rotisserie baseball, which makes it the perfect book for your basic baseball nut to read during a strike. The other book is Philip Roth’s ‘The Great American Novel,’ which is a nutty attempt to blend fiction and baseball into the great American novel. It’s really more for grad students than fans, but it’s memorable because it has a character named Gil Gamesh.”


Strangely enough, there’s more agreement--as well as pleasure--in the writers’ list of worthy baseball movies.

Freeman’s candidate for the best to watch during a strike is John Sayles’ 1988 adaptation of “Eight Men Out.” He also likes “Bang the Drum Slowly,” made in 1973, for which Harris also did the screenplay, “if only because it’s a lovely early Robert De Niro film. I think ‘The Natural’ is even more fun to watch now than when it came out. You can see Glenn Close before she was famous and Robert Redford in his absolute prime. It’s a movie with a little bit of mysticism and a lot of baseball.” The 1988 movie “Bull Durham,” he said, is “irresistible and memorable cinematically because it launches a wonderful director, Ron Shelton. Any of those films would be more fun than watching a bunch of corporate bozos batter each other in these endless negotiations.”

“Bull Durham” also happens to be Angell’s “all-time favorite baseball film because it’s about baseball and about sex, both great things to be about. My least favorite baseball film is ‘Field of Dreams,’ which is such baloney, sweet and gooey. Ballplayers loved it, though. It left them in tears. But they weren’t the only ones. I remember coming out of a screening of that awful film and running into my friend and neighbor Mike Wallace. ‘Wasn’t that awful?’ I said, and then noticed he was weeping.”

Halberstam’s film favorite is “Bang the Drum Slowly,” for “Michael Moriarty’s absolutely wonderful performance. ‘Bull Durham’ is very nicely done, but I think ‘The Natural’ shared--and, indeed, revealed--the book’s flaws. It was too studied, too allegorical and self-conscious. ‘Eight Men Out’ is a quiet and heartbreaking film.”

Mostly, writers are like other fans, nostalgic but weary of the national pastime’s dreary fiscal soap opera.

“I lost interest in baseball when I moved back to New York,” said Dunne. “In Los Angeles I would go--always by myself--to see 15 or 16 games a year. I’d always get to Dodger Stadium at 4 in the afternoon, when they opened the parking lots. I loved the beauty of the place and of the rituals, like batting practice. When I first came to L.A. in 1964, the pitchers still warmed up in front of the dugout, so your sense of them was more intimate. I always left by the fifth inning because I didn’t really care about the score, but the true beauty of the game itself. I always made a point of watching Sandy Koufax pitch because it was so beautiful, like watching Baryshnikov dance.”


Halberstam said that “like most fans, I have a plague-on-both-their-houses attitude. These owners could screw up a two-car funeral. The players have turned out to be very shrewd capitalists, but in this economy and in this country, right now, almost nobody is on their side. I think that, in the end, all of them have exhausted all of us.”


Regarding Media runs Wednesday and Friday. Tim Rutten can be reached at