Many, many moons ago I read Bernard Malamud’s THE NATURAL, and fell head-over-heels for baseball. So profound was the experience that I’ve been unable to read another Malamud to this day, on the basis that, to the best of my knowledge at least, none of his other books are about baseball.
Of course, it was a young man’s love. By which I mean, I fell in love with the idea of baseball, with its lore and language and what it represented, and particularly its mythic status as America’s national pastime. And so, over the years, I’ve watched plenty of baseball movies, and read some books, in the process putting together a very sketchy understanding of the game its great names, among them Di Maggio, Ruth, Robinson, Mays, Williams, Jackson, Gehrig, and the gloriously despised Ty Cobb. And then there are the team names; the Cubs and the various Sox, the Cardinals, the Tigers and Pirates and Indians and the perfidious Dodgers; and the ball parks themselves, from Fenway to Candlestick.
It’s impossible to engage with American popular culture and not be infected by baseball by a process of osmosis. One of my favourite novels, for example, William Goldman’s MARATHON MAN, is steeped in the game; the game’s argot is pervasive, seeping into the language of film and novel and play, of casual conversation and political speech. I understood the audacity of stealing a base before I knew what base-stealing was; I could contextualise curveballs and pinch hitters and double plays and the bottom of the ninth long before I understood their technical meaning.
Fast forward to many moons ago, when I spent a very pleasant week in Atlanta in the company of a very pleasant young woman, who very kindly showed me the town, the highlight of which was a tour of Turner Field. That was in March, unfortunately; still, it was nice to finally step into a ball park.
But it wasn’t until about a month ago that I actually sat down to watch an entire game of baseball on TV. I have no idea why I did so; these days I don’t even have time to watch a full game of hurling, and I couldn’t even tell you who was playing that night. It took about two innings before I was hooked. Given that most live baseball games run three to four hours, and that most games shown here are on ESPN around midnight, I’ve developed the very bad (i.e., time-consuming) habit of recording a night’s game and watching it the following evening. I’m not rooting for any one team; to be honest, I don’t even care who wins, or the score. I’m just fascinated by what these guys are doing, their technical proficiency in a game of millimetres. And I’m less interested in the Hollywood plays, the booming homer to the second tier, as I am by the more mundane plays; my favourite, as it happens, is the third baseman or short stop picking up an infield drive and rifling it across to the hungry glove on first base. Overall, and contrary to what I would have believed from watching baseball movies, and as thrilling as it is to watch a guy lean back and smack the pill into the middle of next week, I’m far more interested in watching the pitchers than the batters, and the fielding, and particularly that of the infielders.
When I opened Dennis Lehane’s superb THE GIVEN DAY last week, and discovered that the opening chapter was a beautifully written fictional account of the Babe stepping down off a stalled train to go play ball in a field in the middle of nowhere, it’s safe to say that Lehane was pushing at an open door.
Which brings me to the point of this post. I have THE NATURAL lined up for a long overdue re-read, but I’m open to suggestions about other books about baseball. I’ve read SHOELESS JOE, and it’s probably a bit too soon to go back to it; but if anyone can suggest a novel about baseball, I’m all ears (suggestions on college baseball particularly welcome). Short stories would work too, given the nature of the game. And if anyone can recommend a good history of baseball, preferably one containing potted histories of the great players and teams, that would be a bonus.
Finally, I have a Baseball Reader around here somewhere, which I’ve been looking for in vain for the last couple of weeks, one which contains Ty Cobb’s letter to the Hall of Fame detailing his Greatest Team. If anyone can tell me which book that’s in, I’d be very grateful.
Play ball …
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.