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Book Review

A Look at the Brain Trust Animating America's Favorite Pastime

THE HEAD GAME Baseball Seen From the Pitcher's Mound by Roger Kahn; Harcourt $25, 336 pages

September 22, 2000|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In "The Head Game," veteran baseball writer Roger Kahn takes us on an agreeable ramble through the history of baseball as seen from the point of view of its brainiest players, the pitchers. Kahn took the book's title, "Head Game," from a 1990 conversation with pitcher Clem Labine, who played for the Brooklyn Dodgers and Pittsburgh Pirates.

"In a single phrase," Kahn writes, "Labine had summed up the essential core of baseball magic.

"One man stands at the center of the diamond, surrounded by four umpires, eight teammates and thousands of spectators. He is alone. The other, also alone, but armed with a club, stares hard. The pitcher moves. The battle joins, and it is waged with wit and strength, with muscle, guile and guts.

"Statistics? The numbers that fill the record books are secondary stuff, commentary after the fact. The battle itself, the head game, is a duel."

Much of this lively book is devoted to the kinds of pitches they use to win that duel. Kahn writes that when he covered the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1952, "the most cerebral Brooklyn pitcher was a tall, skinny hillbilly named Elwin Charles 'Preacher' Roe, who the season before won 22 games and lost three." Though a college graduate, Roe, Kahn writes, "affected the manners of a bumpkin." He claimed to have only three pitches: "Mah change; mah changer off'n mah change and mah change off'n mah change off'n mah change."

That is, Kahn writes, "Slow, slower, slowest."

Actually, Kahn says, Roe had a fastball, which was "the Stealth bomber of pitches." Sliders, curves, breaking balls, knuckle balls, down to the current "circle change" of today--Kahn covers them and their inventors, real and supposed. The real inventor of the curveball, according to historians at the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y., was Arthur "Candy" Cummings, who said that he threw his first real curveball while playing in a Boston club against Harvard. To Kahn, the first great pitcher was Charles "Ol Hoss" Radbourn, who flourished in the 1880s, before whiskey wore him down and syphilis killed him at the age of 42.

Radbourn's love of whiskey and women was typical of ballplayers in those days. He was a hell-raiser, or, in the old phrase, "a hooray boy." He was not at all typical in his devotion to the game: In the National League season of 1884, he pitched 678, that's right, 678 innings. By contemporary comparison, Kahn notes, David Cone, a 20-game winner, pitched 207 innings for the triumphant 1998 New York Yankees. Kahn makes a distinction between the "first great pitcher" and "the first great modern pitcher." That title, Kahn believes (with many others), belongs indisputably to Christy Mathewson.

And it was on some autumn afternoons in 1905, in the second World Series ever played, that great modern pitching was born when Mathewson, of John McGraw's New York Giants, shut out Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics three times. Mathewson was big and strong, but it wasn't just strength that gave him those shutouts. He was, Kahn says, "a quick, calculating fellow" who believed in observing and remembering the strengths and weaknesses of every batter who came before him.

Mathewson was a phenomenon in other ways for a baseball player: He was refined, knew Latin, married a well-born lady and refused to play ball on Sundays. The lives of the great Mathewson, his predecessors and contemporaries occupy nearly half of "The Head Game." It is the most rewarding part of the book, evocative of baseball in its youth and adolescence, redolent of an America whose raucous sounds--think brass bands and massed cheering--and pungent smells--think cigars and chewing tobacco--are fading rapidly from living memory.

Kahn strides more briskly through pitchers since--there are chapters on Warren Spahn, Johnny Sain, Don Drysdale, Bruce Sutter and, of course, Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson. Others bob up along the way, and Kahn closes with a look at the outstanding pitching coach, Leo Mazzone. And he does not neglect Cy Young, Juan Marichal, Allie Reynolds, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Bob Feller, Walter Johnson and Sal Maglie, of whom he writes, "No one on any mound was any meaner. Like Iago, he didn't know the meaning of the word 'remorse.' "

Kahn, as fans of "The Boys of Summer" and his other books know, can be unsparing in his characterization. The late Walter O'Malley he calls "the Archduke of Feudalism." Such salty remarks are only the spice in this loving tale of baseball that is as lively and familiar and old-shoe as the game itself, even today.

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