There are two kinds of people in this world: those who keep score at baseball games and those who don’t.
I still have a scorecard from the very first major league game I ever saw in person. It was a game in 1981 at Wrigley Field between the Phillies and the Cubs. I was almost 21 and the pitching match-up was: Steve Carlton against Fergie Jenkins. Pretty damn good for your first game in person.
It is a scorecard from my first game BUT it is not myscorecard. Somehow during that day I ended up switching cards with someone in the large group I was with. So my souvenir is someone else’s scorecard of my first game.
For a number of years I had a notebook that had games I went to at Wrigley, Comiskey, the Astrodome and Tiger Stadium. Dozens and dozens of games… if not hundreds. Somewhere in one of a many, many moves over the years, I lost that notebook. But for some reason I still have someone else’s scorecard from my first “in person” major league game.
The need to obsessively document every game I go to has lessened over time. This year so far I have gome to one game at Miller Park in Milwaukee and two at Target Field. The game at Miller I scored as well as my first at Target Field. At my second game though at Target Field with my good friend Keith I did not even try to keep score. With time I have learned that the game is enjoyable both ways.
The best baseball books are autobiographical. This is because baseball is the most measurable of games. We can look at a player’s statistics and the box scores of games and know the bones of the sport. The flesh of the sport is in autobiography.
The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn is two books. The first part is a memoir about growing up in Brooklyn, what the Dodgers meant to the writer and his father, and about what it was like to cover the Dodgers as a young reporter. The second part consists of chapters devoted to different players. Kahn, like Ritter in The Glory of Their Times, tracked down players to find our what their lives were like after the Brooklyn Dodgers. In Ritter’s case, he was meeting men he had only read and heard about. Kahn was reacquainting himself with men he already knew, or thought he knew. The two parts combine to create the most critically acclaimed baseball book ever written.
Kahn covered the Brooklyn Dodges for the New York Herald Tribune for two seasons, 1952-1953, as the beat writer. This was the Brooklyn Dodgers of Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, and Gil Hodges. This is the Dodger team that lost two World Series in the row to the Yankees. These are the Dodgers of baseball legend, when New York was the capital of baseball.
Kahn is a remarkable writer whether he is exploring his relationship with his father and their shared love of the Dodgers or is chronicling the after-baseball life of Dodger great Carl Furillo. He tells his stories with love and compassion. The result is literature that even a non-baseball fan could love. For a baseball fan, this is one of the top two or three books ever written about the game.
Anyone who loves baseball and knows how to write wants to write a baseball book. Baseball is the most literary of the sports. It’s long season, the un-timed nature of its games leads inevitably to stories– of past games and past players.
Lawrence S. Ritter was an economics professor at NYU and an editor and writer of economic books and journal articles. When baseball legend Ty Cobb died in 1961, Ritter realized what few others did: with each passing year, more of the early greats of the game would be gone… so would their stories and the stories of the deadball era game.
Between 1962 and 1966, Ritter travelled 75,000 miles to interview players from the early days of baseball, sitting for hours recording their tales with his tape recorder. The result, The Glory of Their Times, is the single best book every written about baseball.
The key to the book is the method Ritter used. He turned on the tape recorder and let the players reminisce: tell their stories without prompt or interruption. Only later did he edit. The result is magical.
Men who played just before World War I and after, who played in the first World Series, who played when baseball was truly the national pasttime, who played to escape deadly jobs in mines and slaughterhouses, who were hall-of-fame legends and were teammates and opponents of hall-of-fame legends, tell their stories in a way that can only be called lyrical and literary in the best sense of both those words. You are drawn in and carried along like the best novel, while the dozens of photographs Ritter includes from the men he talked to and other old sources illuminate and delight like the best non-fiction books.
Ritter invented a genre of sports books. Many people have done it since, but no one has done it as well. If I was starting a baseball library from scratch, I would start with this book.
In honor of the upcoming baseball season, I will be reviewing baseball books. There are good and even a few great books written about basketball, football, and hockey. But in baseball there are so many more.
Baseball is at its root a game of conversation. The long season, the timeless nature of the games themselves, leads inevitably to conversation. In the dugout, players and coaches tell stories about games and plays they have seen and players they have known. They talk about all the important and unimportant things in their lives in the way you can only talk to friends and people who share the very same histories, interests, passions, and skills. In the stands, fans do the same. Many of the stories are the same. On the radio and on television people are paid to talk about the game.
Over the last few years, with the strike, the steroid scandal, the proliferation of teams being able to literally buy a world series, my interest in the game has waned. But my love of baseball and of baseball books has not. Middle-aged men enjoy looking back at the glory of their youth. My youth and young adulthood coincided with some of the best baseball ever played. No doubt every generation has felt the same. You see it in the literature that surrounds the game. Men remembering their youth almost always feel that the best time has passed.
Over the next few weeks, I will be reviewing what I think are the best books about the game– non-fiction for the most part but a few fiction books all the same. 15 days to opening day. It is time to think of baseball again.