For me, it’s not hard to decide what sport has produced the greatest books. It’s the national pastime, of course, the game that has defined our nation. Not to go all Ken Burns on you, but this game says so much about our national character.
Boxing has inspired some of the greatest films — Raging Bull, of course, as a prime example – but I’m not sure whether that celebration of brutality, or the other, football, has produced stories that get to the core of the American being.
So here we are, with our Major League Baseball season just under way, and it’s time to take a look at a few baseball classics.
No game is more immersed in history than baseball. Every time a batter comes to the plate, he’s not just batting against the team out in the field — he’s also taking on everyone else who’s ever stood in those cleats and tapped that bat against the rubber.
Same thing with writing about baseball. If you don’t believe this game has a deep bench of literature, then get hold of Baseball’s Best Short Stories (Chicago Review Press, $18.95), edited by Paul D. Staudohar. This is the classic collection for the 21st Century. For years, Charles Einstein produced the Fireside Books of Baseball series and his greatest hits collection, The Baseball Reader. That book was a model anthology, a collection that brought together short stories, poems, news accounts, song lyrics and, in one memorable instance, the transcript of a Vin Scully call of the end of a ballgame.
As the title indicates, this new collection focuses on short fiction. It starts with Ernest Thayer‘s celebrated “Casey at the Bat,” but follows it with the mock news account by the great sportswriter, Frank DeFord. It counters the classic short stories of early minor league ball by Ring Lardner —the man who practically invented the genre of the baseball story — with more recent work from W.P. Kinsella, who gave the world the great baseball fantasy, Shoeless Joe (filmed as Field of Dreams).
In between, we have George Plimpton (another classic, this one an elaborate April Fools prank, “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch”), Garrison Keillor, Michael Chabon, P.G. Wodehouse, Damon Runyon, and James Thurber (his famous piece from the 1940s about statistics-mad ball fans, “You Could Look it Up.”).
These aren’t just great baseball stories. Gather that gang together, and you have some of the best short stories of the last century. If these names are unfamiliar, consider this book your home schooling. Anyone who hasn’t read Ring Lardner and has the ability to recite passages from memory has a deficient education.
Every American home needs a book case devoted to baseball literature, from Bernard Malamud‘s The Natural to Elliot Asinof‘s Eight Men Out. Make a little more room for this one.
I promised this column would deal with classics and so here’s another one — the rivalry between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. Few sports rivalries are as long-lasted and deeply felt than than this one. It transcends owners, managers and players. The people change, the hatred remains the same.
There have been several books on the teams over the years. One of them was titled Red Sox Fans Are From Mars, Yankee Fans are From Uranus (Triumph Books, $14.95).
There’s a new book that looks at the rivalry from both sides now. Open it from the front and it’s titledI Love the Red Sox (Triumph Books, $14.95). Flip it over and the book opens on the other side with the title I Hate the Yankees. All the way around, it’s a Red Sox fan’s wet dream. The authors are Jon Chattman, Allie Tarantino, and Rich Tarantino, die-hard Red Sox fans all.
Crammed with facts, figures and trivia, the book will do just as much as a Fenway Frank and a cold Bud to put you in the mood for baseball.
Granted, a lot of the Red Sox history is ignoble. Between Bucky Dent, Bret Boone and Bill Buckner, there wasn’t much to cheer about for a long time. The Red Sox success of the last decade is uncharacteristic in team history. It’s been more frustration than fanfare in Fenway Park.
Speaking of Fenway, it turns 100 years old next week. It opened the same week the Titanic sank.
There’s a flood of Fenway books on the market right now, but none of them beat the book published last year by baseball historian Harvey Frommer. Remembering Fenway Park (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, $45) belongs on the coffee table of every self respecting baseball fan. It’s not just a pretty book It’s a great pictorial history, of course, but it also contains great narrative and oral history. It’s a book to be treasured, like the lyric little bandbox it celebrates.
And speaking of the “lyric little bandbox,” that line comes from John Updike‘s famous New Yorker story about Ted Williams‘s last game. Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu (Library of America, $15).
In case your copy of the Oct. 22, 1960 issue of the New Yorker has worn out, here’s the opportunity to have that wonderful article as a keepsake, something to hand down to the next generation, like that tradition of fathers playing catch with sons.