Baseball books cover the bases
George Plimpton knew the score. A generation or so ago, the late Paris Review editor developed what he called the “Small Ball Theory” of sports writing, which posits “a correlation between the standard of writing about a particular sport and the ball it utilizes — that the smaller the ball, the more formidable the literature.”
There are, he explained, “superb books about golf, very good books about baseball, not many good books about football or soccer, very few good books about basketball and no good books at all about beach balls.”
Of course, baseball writing isn’t what it was in Plimpton’s day: There’s too much of it, too many exposés and clubhouse memoirs, too many overly romanticized memoirs about little league or lost heroes, the simplicity of another time.
And yet, each year his theory is borne out by new books that surprise us — if only by reminding us that we still can be surprised. Histories, biographies, meditations on the sport and its meanings: At its best, the literature of baseball continues to offer a curious double vision, in which the game exists as much in the mind, in the imagination, as it does on the field.
Among the most compelling baseball books this season is UCLA law professor Stuart Banner’s “The Baseball Trust: A History of Baseball’s Antitrust Exemption” (Oxford University Press: 304 pp., $29.95), a look at the game’s idiosyncratic legal status: Of all the major sports, it is the only one exempt from federal antitrust law.
How did this happen? “The most common explanation emphasizes the unique position of baseball in American culture,” Banner writes, before arguing that like so much in baseball, this is sentimental myth. Rather, the exemption, which dates from 1922 and has been affirmed repeatedly, is the result of “a sophisticated business organization [that] has been able to work the levers of the legal system.”
Its legacies include the reserve clause, which for decades bound players to their teams, and expansion, another fascinating if underexplored area that is the subject of Fran Zimniuch’s “Baseball’s New Frontier: A History of Expansion, 1961-1998" (University of Nebraska Press: 232 pp., $19.95 paper).
“Baseball’s New Frontier” is not on the level of “The Baseball Trust”; it’s sketchy in places, not least the dynamics that led Walter O’Malley to move the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1957. If, however, you’re looking for a capsule history of baseball in the transcontinental era, you could do worse.
Zimniuch begins, as he should, with the Continental League: a late 1950s effort to create a third major league. Although the Continental League never got off the ground, it was enough of a threat that Major League Baseball added four teams (including the Angels) in 1961 and 1962. Between then and 1998, an additional 10 teams were created, a development that, despite its challenges, Zimniuch argues “has made the game healthier than it has ever been.”
I beg to differ: Expansion has diluted the talent pool, especially in regard to pitching, making games longer, less well played. But as with the antitrust exemption, it is a fact of baseball’s business landscape, and as every fan knows, baseball, especially under Commissioner Bud Selig, is about nothing if not the bottom line.
For that reason, I suppose, I’m intrigued this spring by books that look past the game’s legal and financial status. “Beyond Home Plate: Jackie Robinson on Life After Baseball,” edited by Michael G. Long (Syracuse University Press: 248 pp., $29.95), offers what I would have thought was impossible: a new way to think about Jackie Robinson.
The late Dodgers second baseman, who broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, wrote a column — first for the New York Post and later for the Amsterdam News — from 1959 to 1968, and those pieces make up the bulk of this collection, addressing topics as diverse as interracial marriage, the racism of the Boston Red Sox and his support for (yes) Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential campaign.
“Color Blind: The Forgotten Team that Broke Baseball’s Color Line” by Tom Dunkel (Atlantic Monthly Press: 368 pp., $25) adds another chapter to the integration story, beginning with a brief riff on Robinson’s debut in Brooklyn before tracing the history of a semipro team from Bismarck, N.D., which in the 1930s put the lie to every pernicious myth about race and talent by fielding a championship team composed, in equal measure, of players black and white.
When it comes to baseball history, Edward Achorn has carved out his own territory, re-animating the 19th century game. His new book, “The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Race Made Baseball America’s Game” (PublicAffairs: 292 pp., $26.99), uses the 1883 American Assn. season to portray St. Louis Browns owner Chris von der Ahe, who, in understanding the relationship among baseball, spectacle and commerce, was a century or so ahead of his time.
Gerald C. Wood’s “Smoky Joe Wood: The Biography of a Baseball Legend” (University of Nebraska Press: 432 pp., $34.95) brings back the early Red Sox pitcher (in a legendary 1912 matchup, he outdueled Walter Johnson, 1-0) who later coached Yale’s baseball team for 20 years. In “Baseball’s Great Scout: The Life of High Alexander” (University of Nebraska Press: 200 pp., $24.95), Dan Austin focuses on the scout known as Uncle Hughie, who signed dozens of players, including Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton, in a career that lasted 60 years.
Then there’s “The DiMaggios: Three Brothers, Their Passion for Baseball, Their Pursuit of the American Dream” by Tom Clavin (Ecco: 288 pp., $25.99), a group biography that views its subjects not only as athletes but as family members and even, in their way, as symbols — their father was a San Francisco fisherman — of American mobility and class.
This too is what Plimpton was getting at, that of all sports, baseball speaks most deeply to our identity because it is the most timeless and democratic of games. We live through the long season, the long careers of our heroes; in their victories, but more often in their travails, we see some reflection of ourselves.
Such a notion resides at the heart of “Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game” (Gotham: 242 pp., $27.50), a book of quasi-spiritual reflections by New York University President John Sexton, developed from a course he’s taught for many years.
As it happens, I agree with Sexton about the spiritual side of baseball; its charm is in its contemplation, which is the case with literature, as well.
“Baseball,” Sexton writes, “calls us to live slow and notice. This alone may be enough.”
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