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Me and DiMaggio: A BASEBALL FAN GOES IN SEARCH OF HIS GODS by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (Simon & Schuster: $17.95; 278 pp.)

September 07, 1986|Tom Clark | Clark is the author of several books about baseball, including "No Big Deal," with Mark "The Bird" Fidrych.

"A Fan's Notes" might have made a good title for this unique baseball book if novelist Fred Exley hadn't already staked claim to it; and indeed Christopher Lehmann-Haupt's story, as rigorously nonfiction as he's been able to make it ("Nothing of what follows has been invented," his preface begins), is as close to fantasy as any novel.

"A fan's wildest fantasy come true" is how the author describes the invitation he was given in 1978: to follow, at a publisher's expense, and from a reporter's privileged vantage, an entire baseball season, and then get paid for writing about it.

Lehmann-Haupt, a New York Times book reviewer by trade, is the archetypal layman suddenly plopped down in the middle of the sports professionals' well-guarded sanctuary. He's smart enough to see the interesting potential for comic alienation in that and plays the role to the hilt. Instead of trying to mask his amateur status, he makes the most of it, never allowing us to forget that we're getting the feel of the game through the senses of an armchair fan--one who's sensitive and perceptive but also deeply biased in favor of "his" Yankees, and very much the non-expert (the most notable of this rookie reporter's several factual bloopers is his mistaken identification of a present-day black major-leaguer, Rudy Law, as the son of a former white player, Vernon Law).

This is the classic outsider's view, all the way: from spring training (where the fan-reporter finds himself speechless in the Yankee locker room, eyeballing the players "as if they were inside an enormous bell jar, against whose cold exterior I was pressing my nose") through the All-Star Game (a "streamlined, synthetic" affair staged in the Seattle Kingdome, one of those modern "cement toadstool" stadiums Lehmann-Haupt finds so "faceless" and depressing) to the playoffs, World Series and baseball's annual winter meetings (where he's still trying to make it into the reporters' poker game so as to overcome his "atavistic fears of exclusion").

Lehmann-Haupt brings back from his baseball travels a pocketful of tape recorded mini-interviews with the legendary "gods" of the game, past and present. Many of them turn out to have clay inside their sanitary stockings. Tony Kubek rewards an ice-breaking question with a withering, obscene rejoinder. Most of the "gods," though, seem simply impenetrable, their comments brusque, programmed and suspicious. (The players, a man from the commissioner's office tells Lehmann-Haupt, consider all book writers to be "a bunch of fags"). As interview subjects, Hank Aaron, Nolan Ryan and Rod Carew come off as just barely more interesting than sculpture.

DiMaggio is a different story. Renowned for his ability to "fill whole rooms with cold, black silence," Joltin' Joe turns out to be a curiously tolerant and responsive interview-subject--despite a strange twist the author's questions eventually take. Lehmann-Haupt first tracks down his boyhood hero at an old-timers' game in Portland, where Joe's offer to share a bag of peanuts with him provides a transcendent moment for the fan inside Lehmann-Haupt the reporter.

By the end of the season, however, things have changed. Anxious to prove himself a bona-fide reporter, Lehmann-Haupt confronts DiMaggio with a complicated tale about Joe's alleged night-on-the-town with some Cleveland mafiosi on the eve of a memorable game in 1948. That particular game obsesses the author; it's the one to which he traces his own long baseball addiction. Puzzled when first faced with this snippet of dirty laundry out of the deep past, DiMaggio later grows vaguely embarrassed--enough to convince his interviewer "DiMaggio was human after all." At the cost of "sullying the image" of one of his gods, Lehmann-Haupt exults, he's gotten the story.

The tone of that remark--triumph mixed with self-mockery--exposes the underlying irony of his approach. Setting out to write a book, as he describes it to DiMaggio, "about a typical fan who finds himself having to become a reporter," Lehmann-Haupt discovers as he goes along that there's an inevitable tension between the die-hard fan's incurable romanticism and the skepticism of the hard-eyed, baseball-overdosed beat reporter.

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