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When honesty, baseball writing went hand in glove

The Old Ball Game How John McGraw, Christy Mathewson, and the New York Giants Created Modern Baseball Frank Deford Atlantic Monthly Press: 242 pp., $24 * Best Baseball Writing 2005 Edited by Matthew Silverman and Greg Spira Carroll & Graf: 308 pp., $14.95 paper

April 03, 2005|Roger Kahn | Roger Kahn is the author of many books on baseball, including "Head Game," "October Men" and the recent "Beyond the Boys of Summer: The Very Best of Roger Kahn." Copyright 2005, Hookslide Inc.

When I began writing "The Boys of Summer" in the autumn of 1968, my friendship with Jackie Robinson proved a benediction. One significant aspect of that book was its commercial success. Robinson telephoned me during the summer of 1972, when the book was No. 1 in Boise, Brockton and elsewhere, and called me some X-rated names. "You've got my telephone ringing every damn minute," he said. "People seem to be finding out I'm not an Uncle Tom."

About the time the first paperback printing of "The Boys," a million copies, sold out, publishers began to recognize that baseball books could reap significant sums. Soon large crops of baseball books appeared each spring, variously like daffodils and weeds. This season's crop includes Frank Deford's "The Old Ball Game: How John McGraw, Christy Mathewson, and the New York Giants Created Modern Baseball," a look at the way the game was played and managed at the beginning of the 20th century.

The book is competently written, but its premise that McGraw and Mathewson are responsible for baseball as we know it now is wildly overstated -- newsmagazines tend to do that -- and the book is not helped by its magazine origins. (Deford writes that the book began as a story for Sports Illustrated.)

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 06, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
Baseball review -- In Sunday's Book Review section, a description of pitcher Warren Spahn in a review of "The Old Ball Game" and "Best Baseball Writing 2005" suggested that he sat in the dugout while he talked to reporters and changed clothes after games. In fact, it should have said that he did this in the locker room.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 10, 2005 Home Edition Book Review Part R Page 10 Features Desk 1 inches; 55 words Type of Material: Correction
Baseball review -- A description of pitcher Warren Spahn in an April 3 review of "The Old Ball Game" and "Best Baseball Writing 2005" suggested that he sat in the dugout while he talked to reporters and changed clothes after games. In fact, it should have said that he did this in the locker room.

Since the mid-1980s, serious baseball books have offered detailed indices and thorough bibliographies. Deford's book has neither. So when Deford, trying to forge a nonexistent link, has Ring Lardner and Mathewson both dying of what he calls "TB," there is no way to determine the source of this very considerable error. In a haunting memoir, "The Lardners: My Family Remembered," Ring Lardner Jr. writes that on Sept. 24, 1933, a heart attack killed his father.

Along with Deford's book comes "Best Baseball Writing 2005," which includes some decent pieces gathered from a wide selection of papers and other publications over the last 12 months (never mind the "2005"). But I am a bit put off by its cover, which bills such distinguished semanticists as Ralph Kiner, Don Zimmer and Pete Rose. E.P. Dutton used to print a sportswriting collection in which stories in distinct categories were retyped and submitted anonymously to a jury of eminent journalists. They voted blind. The winners won cash prizes. The Dutton books remain the gold standard of "Bests."

What did the older stories have that some don't today? You can't fault the sportswriters (most of the time): They work under the conditions they've been given. Years ago, they stayed in the same hotels and drank in the same bars with the players. All of this has changed, thanks to club owners and cable television channels squeezing out the writers, keeping players remote, protected from the writers. It's a distance that's sometimes reflected in the quality of the insights the writer gives; it's also a distance that enables a player to come along and make sensational admissions -- think of Jose Canseco's steroid gossip in "Juiced" -- where the baseball writers of old knew almost everything and anything about the players.

The history of good baseball writing -- the art of writing about adults playing a children's game for (mostly) adult readers -- proceeds from two outrageously gifted people who flourished in the first half of the 20th century. Ringgold Wilmer Lardner and Heywood Campbell Broun began their careers as newspapermen. Very different careers; very different men. If I had to cite one thing that connected them, aside from a passion for the game, it would be an equal passion for spirituous beverages. These boys could drink, before writing, during writing and after writing. That was, to be sure, the way things were, in both journalism and baseball, particularly during the nonsensical era of Prohibition.

Ring Lardner was a fine journalist, but his gifts crested in short stories. In a 1915 issue of the Saturday Evening Post, one finds his wondrous fable "Alibi Ike." Here, as was his wont, Lardner uses as narrator a fictive big-league ballplayer who is an oaf. When the story begins, the oaf is talking:

"His right name was Francis X. Farrell and I guess the X stood for 'Excuse me.' Because he never pulled a play, good or bad, on or off the field without apologizin' for it.

" 'Alibi Ike' was the name Carey wished on him the first day he reported down South. Of course we all cut the 'Alibi' part of it right away.

"He ast me one time, he says:

" 'Why do you all call me Ike for? I ain't no Yid.' "

Lardner quickly shoves us face forward against the boorishness and vulgarity that are as much a part of big-league baseball as the double play. Virginia Woolf, not to my knowledge a hardball fan, commented that Ring Lardner's stories let us "gaze into the depths of a society."

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