Baseball: A History of America's Favorite Game
By George Vecsey
(Modern Library, 252 pages, $21.95)
We've barely gotten past Valentine's Day and the robins have descended on Tampa where I live. Robins in the yard, robins in the trees, robins on the roof, robins flying hither and yon. Robins in division-sized units. We've got robins like Old Pharaoh had locusts. They'll be on the mainland soon. Though it will be a bit yet before the first robin pulls up on the outfield grass in Fenway Park.
But I'm glad to say that this too will happen. And not a minute too soon. It's this time of year that I'm weary of all sports that aren't baseball. So I've been watching for the robins since the azaleas began to bloom (about three weeks ago). Watching for them because the robins report to my front yard about the time pitchers and catchers report to spring camps in Florida and Arizona.
Winter is no big deal in Central Florida. In fact, you could sleep late one January morning and miss it altogether. So it's not the first warm day that I pine for; we've had plenty of those this season while much of the rest of the nation took breaks from reading about global warming to shovel record amounts of snow out of their driveways and off their roofs.
No, what I'm ready for is the time of year that the last two words of the national anthem once again are, "Play ball!" A time of year when we can put aside trifling questions such as who slept with Anna Nicole (I will NOT take a DNA test -- I was out of town that weekend)? And move on to heavier philosophical matters such as, will George Steinbrenner actually go into low earth orbit if the Yankees fail to win a world championship for the seventh straight year?
(The sound you hear is Chicago Cubs fans -- of whom there are many, and than whom there can be no larger testimonial to loyalty -- swooning to learn that anyone could consider seven non-championship years a drought. The last time the Cubs won the World Series was in 1908, while Mark Twain and Leo Tolstoy were still alive but Ronald Reagan had not yet been born. I'm told that in the Wrigley Field souvenir shop you can buy a seat shirt with the Cubs emblem and the legend, "Any team can have a bad century.)
I've used part of my waiting time this nearly-spring reading George's Vecsey's compact but compelling history of baseball. Vecsey's treatment is brief -- 220 pages less notes and index -- but contains what's essential to put the game into historical context and to improve the understanding of even life-long fans on the issues and perplexities and foibles as well as the considerable pleasures of the Grand Old Game.
Baseball is a history and an appreciation, written by a New York Times sports columnist who's spent much of his working life writing about baseball (as well as about other sports, religion, and country music). Happily, Vecsey's writing is mostly free of the annoying cultural tics of the august publication he works for. Nary a liberal sermonette in the entire book.
Though Vecsey doesn't try to hide his love for the game, what Baseball (a compact title for a compact treatment) is not is an over-wrought, five-hanky soaper like the 200 episode (seemed like that many at the time) Ken Burns series of the same name broadcast by PBS a decade or so ago. There's room in this brief treatment, though, for a grace note or two.
The season begins in the hopefulness of early spring and it flourishes
In the heat of summer and then it breaks hearts in the nippy evenings
Of late October.
Vecsey turns almost lyrical when writing about Stan Musial. (What fan and writer who came of baseball age in the forties and fifties wouldn't?) But you won't hear an all-strings rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" as you read. Vecsey shows, economically, how baseball makes up a vital part of cultural connective tissue for Americans, especially for American boys and men, without getting syrupy about it.
Baseball, in a form that would be at least recognizable to today's fans, has been around in America since at least 1840, while stick and ball sports that are at least distant cousins to baseball have existed on various continents for centuries. Vecsey deconstructs the silly story about how Abner Doubleday, a distinguished Army general and West Point graduate who may never even have seen a baseball game in his life, supposedly invented baseball in upstate New York in 1839. This patriotic but far-fetched idyll was invented by one Albert Goodwill Spalding (yea, the guy whose name is on the sporting equipment), an abstemious and not entirely straight-shooting former ball player who went on to become one of baseball's first marketers. He was apparently willing to do almost anything short of sticking to the truth to promote the game and make it sound all-American.
Readers will learn that strikes and unions and gambling and new and rival leagues and salary caps as well as cheapskate and boorish owners are not just blights on the recent game. They all have their roots in the 19th century. Happier stories about how Babe Ruth saved the game after the Black Sox scandal and how Jackie Robinson integrated it are also here.
Steroids of course are new, but amphetamines have been around for decades. Beer was the first drug of choice among baseball players, but this choice may have reflected the players' modest incomes more than anything else. They abused what they could afford.
Vecsey isn't hesitant to say what he doesn't like about the modern game, and I'm pleased that many of his crotchets are mine as well. Beyond the pampered and wildly overpaid players and overpriced tickets there's the incessant din of constant marketing of one kind or other and awful "music" at ear-splitting decibels. No more relaxing organ music between innings. Going back a bit, Vecsey, like me, doesn't care much for the sappy baseball movies with maudlin stories, crude game scenes, and bad casting. (Good grief, Gary Cooper didn't look any more like Lou Gehrig than Dick Cheney looks like Paris Hilton.)
In an ever-increasing search for more income (see above re wildly-overpaid players) there's the absurdity of attractive retro ballparks being named after corporations whose names give you no clue what their products or services are. Some of these corporations have gone belly-up after buying stadium-naming rights. You can no longer spend a few pleasant hours at Enron Field in Houston, for example.
But baseball has survived drug and gambling scandals, avaricious and pig-headed owners, pit-bull unions, a depression and two world wars, Jim Crow, strikes, as well as competition from other sports and activities for our time, money, and affection. The game that survived Chuck Comiskey and a World Series thrown for gamblers will survive George Steinbrenner and steroid-besotted sluggers who think hit and run is something that just happens at liquor stores around closing time.
The only down-side to Vecsey's splendid job of dealing with both the historical sweep and many telling details of the great story of baseball in such a short space is that I was sorry when the book was, all too soon, over. If you like baseball, you will be too. But maybe by the time you finish the book the game will have started.
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