Is it contradictory to say that although Wilfrid Sheed's new book makes nice reading, it has no earthly reason to exist?
"My Life as a Fan" is not bad--in fact the English-born Sheed's record of his love affair with American sports is a nimble if brazenly padded-out memoir. And with Sheed attention always must be paid--he has been an excellent critic and a good novelist for decades. But the lack of scope and ambition in "My Life as a Fan" is so complete as to verge on a dare. Sheed seems to believe there's no TV, radio, telephone or movies to distract us. Doesn't he want to speak in a slightly louder voice about a slightly bigger subject than his teen-age emotional response to professional sporting events?
In 1940 Sheed's parents, who ran a transatlantic Catholic publishing house, uprooted the family from wartime England and stowed themselves safely in rural Pennsylvania. Almost immediately Sheed fell headlong in love with American sports. He played them until he was felled by polio in 1944, after which he simply watched them. He loved football and basketball, then in its Pleistocene, set-shot era; but most of all he swooned over baseball.
Sheed first fell briefly in love with the team at hand, the Philadelphia (now Oakland) Athletics. His passion intensified at Catholic boarding school under Father Felix, "who would have given all his sermons and retreats about baseball if they'd let him. . . . One baseball nut in an institution is a sorry, rather desperate object, but two is a happy crowd." When Sheed's family moved to Manhattan, he divorced the last place A's and took up with the hard-luck Brooklyn Dodgers, a marriage that ended only when the team bailed out of Brooklyn to go you-know-where in 1958. And he stayed single until the Mets were born in 1962: "I had me a new team and a second wind, and have lived happily cum grouchily ever after. But who wants to hear about the home life of Ulysses?"
Why did a boy schooled in cricket and soccer fall head over spikes for baseball? In "Confessions of a Sports Nut," an essay written 30 years ago, Sheed anticipated this book down to the title: "Exile is an ugly business at any age," he explains. "My life as a fan . . . was a social passport." He jokes that his obsession with baseball was like that of Emil Jannings for Marlene Dietrich in the Blue Angel--an image that reappears in these pages.
Cannibalizing one's own work isn't the problem here. It's this: Honestly, is there anything left to say about the Brooklyn Dodgers, those perpetual darlings of the chattering classes? Clearly thousands of future writers sat in the Ebbets Field bleachers in the 1940-1950s. Those fans now practice a kind of cultural imperialism over the rest of us, swamping our own baseball memories with the most trivial details about Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges, Duke Snider and the other overexposed boys of summer. As a lifelong New York Yankee fan, I'm lucky: At least the once-dominant Bronx Bombers serve as the object of Brooklyn nostalgists' fulminations. But what of the fans of the other 14 teams that labored through that era, or the 28 teams that play today: Where is the bard, say, of the Washington Senators or the Seattle Pilots?
And most of all, what about you, gentle reader? If you've read this far, you may well be a fan of the \o7 Los Angeles\f7 Dodgers. If you were, like Sheed, 9 years old when the Dodgers came to town, you're now 44, and you believe, having watched Don Drysdale, Steve Garvey and Orel Hershiser, that you have the right to your memories too. Sheed doesn't care that baseball would have all the relevance of lacrosse if there were still no teams located west of St. Louis, as was the case in 1958. No, Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley, who moved the team to Los Angeles, was the Antichrist pure and simple and always will be. Not only was he "villainous," "a somewhat unctuous con man" and the "ultimate Frank Capra villain," Sheed even named an officious church money-collector in his wonderful 1963 novel "The Hack" after O'Malley. Coming from a man as serious about his Catholicism as Sheed is, that's as bad as Dante giving you a place in the inferno.