Diamonds Are Forever
Does Baseball Still Matter?
- historian Jacques Barzun
If Barzun was right then both baseball and Amer-ica are in a slump. In October 1994, for the first time in almost a century, there was no World Series. The recent strike has scarred the game deeply and bitterly, pitting the players against the owners, and everybody against the fans, who responded by leaving for other sports in droves. The 1995 season was damn close to being started by replacement players. Only a last-ditch shoestring agreement between owners and players saved the sport, averting a blow that could have wiped baseball from its already tenuous stature as one of America's premier sports - forever.
Once upon a time, baseball was the straw that stirred America's drink. It could do no wrong. Its stars shone brighter than any in the Hollywood firmament; its pennant races were more gripping than Broadway. Baseball saw America through two World Wars, a Depression, and a Cold War; in turn, America forgave baseball, eventually, for the 1919 Black Sox scandal. The great names of the sport were heroes to kids from coast to coast, who emulated their idols on country sandlots and city streets, and inside, where they would dream of one day being at the plate or on the mound at that crucial moment when the game was on the line and the nation hung on every pitch.
Times change. Baseball, a sport where tradition has always been paramount, refused to change with them. Baseball's leisurely pace has not served it well in modern times, and it has suffered the consequences. It is a game more suited to trains and streetcars than jet airplanes, more to newspapers and radio than fax machines and the Internet. All three major American sports were invented in the 19th century; baseball is the only one still played that way. Patience, sacrifice, consistency, and teamwork - baseball's primary values - just aren't in demand the way they were, and not just on the diamond. In a Cadillac world, baseball is still driving a horse and buggy.
But it's hard to throw away tradition - too many fathers and sons still spend their evenings playing catch for that. While the strike may have hurt baseball's credibility, none of the other sports have ideal labor agreements, either. Baseball is the same game Abner Doubleday invented during Reconstruction; in the words of Bull Durham's Crash Davis, "You hit the ball; you throw the ball; you catch the ball." After 125 years, that's still what you do.
As anyone who's ever played right field in Little League knows, it looks as though there's not a whole lot happening on a baseball field. That's too bad, because this casual impression is 100% false. Baseball is highly strategic, a game of chess between opposing managers, with the players as pieces and the diamond as the board. This is baseball, the little nuances such as hit-and-runs, suicide squeezes, intentional walks, sacrifice flies, and stolen bases. Three-run home runs are nice, but they seldom win ballgames.
It's baseball's little nuances that make it such a great sport. No other sport could have produced so many characters: Jim Bouton, Sparky Lyle, Tug McGraw, Mitch Williams, Tim McCarver, "Marvelous" Marv Throneberry, Catfish Hunter, Roger McDowell... if these people (who are/were almost exclusively pitchers, pointing to exactly how much time there is to kill out in the bullpen) weren't playing baseball, they'd either be in prison, hosting a talk show, or overthrowing a government somewhere. Baseball is the thinking man's game. And, because at its core baseball is such a cerebral game, it's not really that big of a surprise that the best sports books are usually written about baseball.
The best baseball books - hell, the best books, period - are ones that have a story to tell, and tell it colorfully, cleanly, and humanly. There's always a story in baseball. Everything from that first game on the sandlot to the final out of the World Series fits good literature the same way American League outfielders with bad knees fit the DH. Baseball and writing fit like, well, hand in glove.
Mark Harris, Peter Richmond, and David Halberstam are three prime examples. An English professor at Arizona State, a senior writer for GQ, and a Pulitzer Prize winner, respectively, each man has a basic love for the game that comes across just as sure as a 95-mph heater over the outside corner. No other sport seems to inspire such literary aspirations; therefore, no other sport has such a rich literary canon. Each man is highly educated and articulate; each is a fan. Their writings echo the game itself, seemingly simple, but brimming with humor, insight, experience, vitality, and depth. Reading their works, it's clear what a rich game baseball is. Perhaps the reports of its death were greatly exaggerated.
Diamond: Baseball Writings of Mark Harris (Primus, $13.95 paper) is a collection of Harris' baseball writings, including the screenplay to Bang the Drum Slowly - probably the best baseball movie ever made - and numerous short stories about everything from Ladies' Day to the Pete Rose gambling scandal. Harris is in love with the game. He's certainly not one of those statistical hounds that drown the game's beauty in a sea of numbers. What he does do is relate the game's humanity. The stories of Diamond are the stories of men long since forgotten by everyone but their families and former teammates. But they are grown men playing a kid's game, and they have never lost that childlike sense of wonder that they could be paid for doing something they love. That same sense is what makes Harris' writing so vibrant. As he says, "I see that the thing that matters, the thing that lasts and endures, has never been so much the names of the players or their statistics, but the game itself, which is the real thing, surviving everyone."
Sometimes, especially in the majors, the sweet simplicity of the game gets obscured by other considerations. Sometimes, as in recently, it gets totally obliterated. But sometimes a hint of that simplicity remains, and if it's profitable, then so much the better. Ballpark: Camden Yards and the Building of an American Dream by Peter Richmond (Fireside, $13 paper) tells the fascinating story of Baltimore's much-touted new stadium. Hailed when it opened in April 1992 as an overdue return to the ballparks of yore, Camden Yards wasn't built in a day, or even a year (actually, it's closer to a decade from idea to dedication). Ballpark tells why, and exactly how much modern planning and politicking, along with how much good old-fashioned sweat, went into the Yards' construction. Beginning with the last game at the old Memorial Stadium and ending with the first game at Camden Yards, Ballpark is enthralling, and more than a little disheartening. What seems on the outside to be the perfect baseball park is actually the result of enough lobbying, arm-twisting, and chicanery to make even the Texas Legislature proud. Richmond profiles everyone from William Donald Schaefer, former Baltimore mayor, Maryland governor, and relentless Orioles booster to the men responsible for Camden Yards' outfield grass. It's clear in Ballpark how much of a business baseball has become, but it's equally clear that some of baseball's old values remain. The book is about Baltimore itself as much as it is about the ballpark, and Baltimore is one of America's best baseball cities. What makes it so is reminiscent of Harris: In Baltimore, the Orioles aren't stars, they're just guys who happen to play a game for a living. And they just happen to have a beautiful, somewhat controversial, stadium to do it in.
Everyone is a fan for a minute when new stadia such as Camden Yards open, and everyone is a fan once again come October. Even though they may not watch another game all season, and even if they can't tell the cutoff man from the mascot, people watch the World Series. The networks, which in recent years have avoided baseball the way Billy Martin didn't avoid a good dirt-kicking, still rake in big bucks from the Series - when there is one. There was one in 1964, unlike 30 years later, and it was one of the best. The '64 series was a story of the young St. Louis Cardinals, led by Bob Gibson's arm and Lou Brock's legs, facing off against the aging New York Yankees, who would ride Mickey Mantle's and Roger Maris' aching backs into the Fall Classic one final time. The entire story of the '64 series is retold in October 1964 by David Halberstam (Fawcett, $12.95 paper)which may be one of the finest baseball books ever written.
Structured as a series of individual vingettes interwoven with the season as a whole, October 1964 is brilliant. Halberstam tells the individual ballplayers' stories with the depth and detail of a New York Times profile, and he tells the story of the '64 season, including the frantic Cardinal/Phillie pennant race, as few sportswriters can. But more was going on in baseball than just a World Series that year. The sport was changing from the game my dad grew up watching to the game I would watch as a kid. Black players were still enough of a novelty to be treated that way - Bob Gibson's being called "alligator bait" is a prime example. It was only a few short years until Curt Flood, the Cardinals' '64 center fielder, would challenge baseball's reserve clause, a flashpoint that eventually went to the Supreme Court and forever altered the game. The Yankees were getting old and tired, and 1964 was to be the swan song of baseball's last great dynasty. When, in the ninth inning of Game Seven, Bobby Richardson popped up a Gibson fastball to Dal Maxvill, the Cardinals won the Series and baseball passed from one era into another.
When baseball changes, it does so begrudgingly, if at all. But one thing always remains constant: the numbers. Numbers leave some people cold, but they shouldn't be dismissed. Still, there's always the feeling that something is missing when you look at a box score, as if what really happened isn't there on the page. Fans who have money invested in fantasy leagues and bar bets probably want to read the USA TodayFlash Baseball Weekly 1995 Almanac, edited by Paul White (Hyperion, $12.95 paper), which bills itself as "Everything the baseball fan needs - all in one book." That's more or less true, unless you're the kind of fan who likes the stories behind the numbers. The Almanac basically has everything except the groundskeepers, so stat freaks will love it. Its predictions are a hoot, too. As of June 15, four teams it picked for the cellar (Philadelphia, Boston, California, Colorado) sat atop their divisions. They did get the Central divisions right, though, as Cincinnati and Cleveland were in first last week. If you live in Ohio, this book is wonderful. If you don't, it's not as dry as it could have been, and there's lots of information and some of those fun USA Today graphics to break up the copy.
Baseball is funny. Just when you think things can't get any worse for the ol' National Pastime, something happens to remind you what a wonderfully simple - and simply wonderful - game it really is. This year, it's the Cleveland Indians. The Indians are playing brilliant baseball exactly as the game should be played, with great pitching, stellar hitting, and clutch fielding. What's more, they're playing it with such exuberance and joy it's hard not to do the tomahawk chop from your easy chair or back porch. This is a team that hasn't won a damn thing since 1954, when they set an AL record for wins, then were blown out of the World Series, and essentially the next 40 years, by Willie Mays and the New York Giants. They might have won it last year, but for the strike.
Baseball needs a team like Cleveland - young, gifted, and exuberant, and it needs fans like Cleveland's, who whoop and holler so much in Jacobs Field you can hear them in Buffalo. Teams such as the Indians are what make baseball matter. It's a game, and yet it's a celebration, too. Pete Rose, a man who knows the peaks and valleys of the sport better than anyone, once said, "I can't think of a single thing wrong with the game of baseball." Maybe the only thing wrong with baseball is that not enough people understand what matters about it, and what doesn't. n