Hit and errors: 'A Literary Anthology' tosses in a few fouls in an otherwise winning volume
Special to The Seattle Times
Nicholas Dawidoff may soon understand what it's like to be a baseball manager. As the editor of "Baseball: A Literary Anthology," he chose which writings to include (and exclude) from this collection, leaving fans to question his decision-making as if he were Lou Piniella going to a shaky lefty with the game on the line. Why this piece? How could he have forgotten that author? What was Dawidoff thinking?
The book, 700 pages long, is stuffed with every conceivable literary form — poetry and doggerel, fiction, oral history, memoir, plays, song lyrics — and takes us from Ernest Thayer's "Casey at the Bat" to Don DeLillo's "Pafko at the Wall." It's joyous and historical and, perhaps inevitably, a bit uneven.
James T. Farrell's sweet recollection of his grandmother ("She loved baseball and understood absolutely nothing about the game"), is followed by an unnecessary act from the musical "Damn Yankees." Robert Creamer's bittersweet portrait of Casey Stengel is preceded by Amiri Baraka's unwelcome Black Power condemnation of Jackie Robinson. This unevenness is a problem of all anthologies, but Dawidoff exacerbates it by trying to include everything. Just as the reader gets comfortable with one form, a different form is thrust at him. Just when we are enjoying an excerpt from Roger Kahn's "The Boys of Summer," it's cut short before we're even introduced to the Brooklyn Dodgers. More than 70 writers are represented, and more than 80 pieces, and that's just too many. It's like being invited to a vast smorgasbord where only crumbs are left from some of the best dishes.
The earliest articles, chronologically, tend to be the weakest, but they still intrigue for historical reasons. They remind us of a time when writers put quotes around "Ty" Cobb, and Americans argued over which side to support during World War I.
Of course Dawidoff includes the articles no true fan should be without: Gay Talese on Joe DiMaggio in retirement, "Wahoo" Sam Crawford recollecting turn-of-the-century baseball, David Remnick on Reggie Jackson's final season. There's also the best of the best: John Updike on Ted Williams' last game, and Roger Angell, baseball's Boswell, on the 1975 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Cincinnati Reds. "Bernie Carbo, pinch-hitting," Angell writes, "looked wholly overmatched against Eastwick, flailing at one inside fastball like someone fighting off a wasp with a croquet mallet."
But for me, and other veteran baseball readers — who know most of the above articles — what makes these anthologies worthwhile are the unexpected treasures. Carl Sandburg's 1953 autobiography, "Always the Young Strangers," contains several glorious pages on playing neighborhood ball in the 19th century, including a paean to a woman whose yard the boys traipsed through to retrieve their ball:
"She had property rights and we were trespassing on her property, and she forgave us our trespasses even though we went on trespassing. I would say now that she was a woman of rare inner grace who had gathered wisdom from potatoes and hollyhocks."
I loved Stephen King's gripping 50-page account of the 1989 Maine Little League season, and Roy Blount Jr. on the history of the "Sporting News," and Joel Oppenheimer on the 1972 strike. And I will now have to seek out two excerpted books: Willie Morris' charming 1967 memoir "North Toward Home," about growing up in Yazoo City, Miss., and Eric Rolfe Greenberg's 1983 novel "The Celebrant," which brings to life with ease and humor a turn-of-the-century Jewish family and their relationship to the "Christian Gentleman," New York Giants pitcher Christy Mathewson. In this way, the anthology accomplishes what it should: It makes us want to read on.
At the same time, it's startling what's missing. There's not much on Babe Ruth and even less on Willie Mays. More articles feature the Mets than the Yankees. A reminder that this isn't baseball history so much as literary baseball history, where the author's name counts more than the player's. Sometimes, I feel, it counts for too much. I would have cut perennial All-Stars Thomas Wolfe and Robert Frost and Philip Roth and replaced them with Bill James and Jules Tygiel and Edgar A. Guest. Pulitzer Prizes mean nothing in my league.
In the end, though, Dawidoff shouldn't feel too bad about his selections. I'm generally much more critical of Lou Piniella. And he won 116 games last season.
Erik Lundegaard writes regularly for The Seattle Times, Washington Law & Politics, and The Grand Salami, a Mariners magazine.