Praise for Declan Burke: “Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “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.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Play Ball

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 …


Vince said...

Always happy to meet someone else who shares the sickness. I spend far, far too much time watching baseball. I have my team, but honestly don't care who's playing.

Non-fiction books are the first to occur to me. Ball Four by Jim Bouton is maybe the definitive memoir by a (then-active) player. Michael Lewis' Moneyball perfectly captures the modern era of the game and manages to make the development of statistics seem exciting. Read it before the movie comes out! For a novel with a criminal bent, Domenic Stansberry's The Spoiler offers a sordid look at the minor league circuit.

Ryan said...

Fiction: The Iowa Baseball Confederacy is by the same author as Shoeless Joe and contains a magical realism conceit that works gloriously. A baseball game, like a baseball field, could, in theory, go on forever.

Two non-fiction must reads from one of the grand masters of American journalism (who passed away only a few years ago) David Halberstam: Summer of '49 and October 1964. Gorgeous writing and a sense of time and place to transport you from wherever you might be sitting and reading.

And because of how you described your love of the game in such a particular way, may I recommend any of Thomas Boswell's collections of essays and newspaper columns that capture the rhythm and tenor of the game and focus on the little details. In particular: 'Why Time Begins On Opening Day.' Also 'How Life Imitates The World Series.'

Ryan said...

Oh, and if you haven't read it, you MUST read former baseball Commissioner Bart Giamatti's grand essay, "The Green Fields Of The Mind" available right here:

The opening stanza:

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.

Bill Carlin said...

The late Robert B Parker's "Spenser" novels are almost always laced with baseball references and the stand-alone "Double Play" is a historical novel set in the 1947 season when Jackie Robinson became the first "coloured" player to break into an all-white league. Highly reommended. I'm glad to see that I'm not the only person sad enough to catch up on baseball by recording ESPN for viewing the next day!

Dana King said...

I once took a friend from Brazil to see his first baseball game. He enjoyed the game, but what impressed him most was watching the players warm up before the game, throwing the ball a hundred feet and more and never dropping it. Completely blew him away that they never missed.

The best histories I have read of baseball are both written by the Bill James. (No, not that Bill James.) THE HISTORICAL BASEBALL ABSTRACT and THE NEW HISTORICAL BASEBALL ABSTRACT cover the game from its origins and break it doen by decade, also ranking the greatest players by position. it's overkill for a novice, but also the kind of book that can be opened to any page and enjoyed, or skimmed when the mood strikes.

Eimear said...

For something different, Michael Chabon's "Summerland", which is about baseball and Gotterdammerung. (It's a children's book but don't let that stop anyone.)
He talks about it in this interview:

Thomas Pluck said...

Not totally about baseball, but The Last Days of Summer is written through letters back and forth between a smart-ass young fan and a baseball player in the '40s, and was a great read.

Robert Carraher said...

Family legend says that my mother taught me to read at the age of three. I remember my first book - and I don't mean an illustrated childrens book - was by Albert Payson Terhune, for my 5th Birthday. I carried that battered copy to Vietnam with me some years later. Growing up baseball was central to my family and at times the only thing my father and I could talk about. At the age of eight my grandfather took me and a younger cousin to our first pro baseball game at Dodger Stadium, Th hated Giants with Willie Mays, Willie McCoveyOrlando Cepeda nd Juan Marichal were in town and Sandy Koufax was pitching for the home team. He threw his second no hitter. And I still have the program in which I kept the box score. As an eight year old a no hitter may seem the boringest intro to pro ball but I have a piece of history.

Shortly after that I was steered towards a series of Duane Decker books by the school librarian. These books covered the exploits of the fictional Blue Soxs. Each book in the series centered on an individual player with other players in the series becoming secondary players. Amongst my favorites was "Good Field, No Hit" which covered one of the infielders - and a particluar type of player in the real world. One who was an outstanding defensive infielder but more often than not a liability on offense. I found 4 of these books on eBay a few years ago, and tho' the books are written for juveniles, they still read surprisingly well for an adult. The first book was pubished in 1947 by Morrow. if you can stumble across these, I feel sure you'd enjoy them.

Another baseball book that I treasure, left to me by my father is a book called DAGUERREOTYPES Of GREAT STARS Of BASEBALL which is filled not only with great photos but stories on some of the great stars and notso well knowns. Marvelous book. A marvelously wrotten biography is Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy by Jane Leavy in which she tells Koufax' story and inbetween chapters of his life gives a play by play of his last and best no hitter, the perfect game he threw the year he retired at the young age of 30.

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Although written in 1970, "Ball Four" by Jim Bouton is an entertaining read for sure.

Naomi Johnson said...

I don't have a baseball book to recommend (although if I did, Roger Kahn's THE BOYS OF SUMMER would be it), but I strongly recommend Ken Burns' documentary on baseball. I found it fascinating, moving, and somehow restorative of my faith in the game.

Declan Burke said...

Whoa! Much obliged, folks ... some terrific suggestions there. Looks like it'll cost me a small fortune, too ...

Thanks for the feedback, it's much appreciated.

Cheers, Dec

lil Gluckstern said...

Being something of a people person, I'm always fascinated by the players-who get on buses, sleep in cheap hotels, live on very little money, with dreams of hitting it big in "the bigs." The movie, "Bull Durham,' shows a fantasy picture of that. But there is a book that really touched me, and shows the hard work the players do. It's called "Man on Spikes" by Eliot Asinof, and does fine job of describing Minor League life.

michael said...

Kindle search for "baseball" gets 1861 items.

Some more off beat suggestions:

HOW TO PLAY THE OUTFIELD by various authors including Ty Cobb.

PITCHING IN A PINCH OR, BASEBALL FROM THE INSIDE by (Hall of Fame pitcher) Christy Mathewson


Couple of authors to look for are Ring Lardner and George Will.

BOYS OF SUMMER by Roger Kahn

Zane Grey, who had played pro baseball, wrote two books THE YOUNG PICTURE and THE REDHEADED OUTFIELD.

As for the non-reading suggestions, you might want to try ESPN's BASEBALL TONIGHT featuring highlights of each days games.

Can you get the games by satellite radio Sirius/XM? If so listen to the games by radio, it is a different experience. Vin Scully of the Los Angeles Dodgers is so much a part of the game, fans bring their radios with them when they go to Dodger stadium.

John McFetridge said...

If I'm too late I have a couple of odd suggestions. The Greatest Slump of All Time by David Carkeet about a team that wins more games the more depressed the players become. It's hilarious and sad and hilarious again.

And Home Game by Paul Quarraington. It's set in upper Michigan about a hundred years ago and tells the story of a baseball game between a weird religious sext, the House of Jonah, and a group of carnival "freaks" to decide who has to leave town.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip Roth, The Great American Novel.

I want to open a diner called The Hungry Glove. Old baseball photos will hang on the wall, the menu will include hot dogs, grits, flapjacks, and other heartwarmingly American fare, and waitresses will be required to say, "More coffee, hon?" on pain of losing their jobs..

Nineteenth-century baseball was dominated by Irish immigrants and their kids, should you ever decide to connect this new interest to your homeland and write some historical fiction.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Anonymous said...

Declan, for me Don DeLillo's Underworld is a great place to look. Have u read it? If u thought lehane's opening in the given day was great, it pales in comparison to the first 60 pages or so of Underworld. Sheer magic.

Congrats by the way on the publication


David Baynham said...

A great baseball novel is "The Universal Baseball Assoc. Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop." by Robert Coover. It's about an accountant who creates an entire baseball league with imaginary players and teams. Play is dependent upon the throw of the dice. And, death is possible!. As he realizes the fate of the dice control the game not his desires he seems to vanish from the book and the players and teams become more "real" to the reader. Not really a fantasy anymore than "The Natural" is; it's a loving tribute to baseball. A wonderful novel!

Declan Burke said...

Robert - A no-hitter in your very first game? That's fantastic, man. Maybe boring for an eight-year-old, but still ...

Cheers, Dec

Declan Burke said...

Michael - I have wondered if people bring radios to games; it's a bit of a tradition here in Ireland, at GAA matches. And the commentary at this stage is integral for me, especially when I don't really know what I'm seeing half the time ...

Cheers, Dec

Declan Burke said...

John - Two terrific suggestions, sir. I'll be looking out for those.

Peter - I stumbled across the Roth book, and it sounds like a good one, alright. Ta for that.

Paddy - Haven't read 'Underworld', I'm afraid, but it sounds like I need to pick it up, if only for the opening section.

Cheers, Dec

Peter Rozovsky said...

Declan, I just checked the St. Louis Cardinals' schedule to see if there was any chance of going to a game during Bouchercon. No joy. The Cardinals will be on the road -- here in Philadelphia.

Robert/Declan: I missed seeing Bill Stoneman's second no-hitter, in 1972, when I couldn't find a friend to go to the game with me. But I have seen, live and in person, two triple plays at major league games. One was 2-5-3-6 or, in English, catcher-to-third-baseman-to-first-baseman-to-shortstop. It's safe to say that one does not see many of those.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Robert Carraher said...

Hello Peter, you've wandered away from home...I think the triple play is the rarest occurence in baseball. I couldn't begin to count the pro games I have have attended (or for that matter minor league). And I have attended games in something like 15 major league parks and have never seen a triple play. And Koufax's no hitter is still the only one I ever saw in person at the ball park. But I'd probably attend 20 games a year, outfield bleacher seats at Dodger Stadium were only 75 cents for kids under 12 - and I stayed under 12 for a long time - I grew up such a baseball fan that as a kid of 10 I would make a score sheet on the tablets I was supposed to be doing school work on and sit in our car and listen to Vin Scully announce the games on the radio and keep the box scores - we didn't always have a TV. Scully IS the voice of baseball. And I grew up at a time to see some of the legends of baseball - at Angel Stadium I got to see Mickey Mantle towards the end of his career, strike out three times and destroy his batting helmet. I got to see Roberto Clemente who not only was a feared hitter but one of the greatest arms in the outfield. He'd catch a ball on the warning track with men on base and hold the ball and stare at the runners daring them to try and advance. Got to see Dodger Stadium shake with a chant of "Go Maury, Go" when everybody knew he would steal a base and the pitcher and catcher still couldn't do anything about it. Willie Mays, Koufax (the left arm of god) and Drysdale, Brooks Robinson who seemed to have 8 arms playing 3rd base nothing got by him. Pete Rose who played the game with a little boys enthusiasm even at 40, Joe Morgand, who may just have been the greatest 2nd baseman ever (my position). Hammering Hank Aaron - I watched the game on TV in a tent in Vietnam with about 100 guys crowded into a 12 man tent as he finished the 73 season one homer short, then watched him break the record the next year from a VA hospital in the Phillipines.

Yep, baseball is in my DNA. I still sit around and make "Greatest Ever" line ups on note pads and grease up my ball glove in the springtime.