24-karat diamond-writing gems (Volume 2)

They appeared sometime during the first weeks of March when the world was beginning to thaw out around us. News of spring training was slowly drifting northward and our surviving another school year now seemed possible.

Oh, they were beautiful and reassuring to behold, brand new and glistening crisply in their packages. Packed into cardboard cartons of 24 and 120, stuck behind glassed partitions and stacked on counters. An indication that the world was still in order, a promise of pleasant days and easeful nights.

Bowman cards, Fleer cards, Topps cards—in green wrappers, blue wrappers, and red. And how the news spread quickly through the neighborhood—as the coming of some inestimable personage. And we quickly went down to the corner to check it out, to verify the new arrivals for ourselves.

Yes, the pictures had changed a little bit. And the backs of the cards were altered oh-so-slightly. But they were still basically the same cards as before. There were some things even they couldn’t change.

And the joy of breaking open the year’s first package. To see what Marty Marion was going to look like this year. To see if any of the old uniforms had been altered. To see if everyone was still as young as before. And the sweet pleasant smell of the bubble gum, and the sweet pleasant melting of it in your mouth. And the secure feel of the cards in your pocket, and the knowledge that they were yours and yours alone.

The prospect of all the packages to be opened, the thought of all the new cards to be flipped. The possibilities of wheeling and dealing and pyramiding. The notion that maybe the Red Sox could win the pennant. And above all their splendid physical presence. Their sturdiness. Their symmetry. Their artful grace. The way they looked all stacked up on your dresser. And the mysterious things we knew they really meant.

—Brendan C. Boyd and Fred C. Harris

Yes, that’s right, it’s time for another highlight reel of some of the greatest plays in the history of baseball writing.

The excerpt above is from a little jewel of a book that was never a big best-seller, but has earned something of a cult following among those of us lucky enough to own a precious copy. I don’t know of anything else that Boyd and/or Harris ever wrote, but they hit one out of the park with their uneven, colorful, goofy, irreverent and occasionally wistful remembrance of baseball cards and 1950s childhood.

Of all the many things baseball is, at its heart it is, lest we forget, a game. It’s supposed to be fun, and baseball writing such as this, which takes neither its subject matter nor itself seriously, is as simply fun and refreshing as an ice-cold bottle of Orange Crush from an old gas station vending machine on a sweltering summer afternoon.

Yet, all sports are fun. What so often sets baseball apart is that in addition to being fun, it’s funny, in a way that other sports almost never seem to be. Here’s a deft piece of writing that humorously comments on the humorous nature of this game:

Speaking of bad fielding and baserunning, surely ineptitude is funnier in baseball than in other sports. Bad defense in football or basketball is tragic, shameful, dismal. In baseball it is Dick Stuart earning the nicknames “Dr. Strangelove,” “Stonefinger,” or “Ancient Mariner” (who stoppeth one in three).

It is Curt Blefary becoming known as “Clank,” and Ray Jablonski and Lou “The Mad Russian” Novikoff winning a warm spot in every heart because they persisted, without letting it weaken their characters, in being so awful afield. If a man has a good heart and can hit, bad fielding, at least in retrospect and at a safe distance, can come to seem almost a sign of grace, like a bear’s inability to reason.

As for offense, it may be complicated in football, but it is complicated like the Federal budget is. Baseball offense is often complicated like a Marx brothers movie. Cesar Tovar of the Minnesota Twins is a player of unquestioned competence, but once in 1970 he took off from first on the hit-and-run and was past second when Rod Carew’s fly to center was caught. Tovar raced back to first in time to beat the throw, but without touching second base on the way, as prescribed.

The opposing manager, Baltimore’s Earl Weaver, came out to protest, and time was called. Tovar, standing on first, was told by the Orioles’ Boog Powell that he hadn’t touched second. So Tovar ran over and slid into that base. Then, tired of all the embarrassment and the hassle, he got up and went to the dugout.

Rich Reese told him to go back to first, but Tovar said, “No way.” Baltimore threw to first and Tovar was out on a five-minute double play.

—Roy Blount Jr.

Well, it’s a game, but alas it’s also a business. And nowhere is the business of baseball more wearying than in the challenge it presents of managing men, in a stressful, hyper-competitive environment, for long hot months on end, together nearly all day, every day. A few managers throughout history have proven masters of this more-magic-than-science assignment, but for most it’s understandably a hard task.

A few fail at it in excruciating fashion, egregiously antagonizing their players and losing their respect. Here a writer adroitly deploys anecdotes to illustrate the struggles of Alvin Dark in his 1961-64 managerial stint with the San Francisco Giants, revealing the far-less-than-idyllic atmosphere in which emerged the first African-American team captain in major league history:

Dark’s moods were mercurial, but predictable enough: in victory, magnanimity; in defeat, black rage. In this he was not unique. The night he ripped away his finger throwing a stool in the clubhouse, Ed Bailey, who recently had come to the Giants from the Cincinnati club managed by Fred Hutchinson, seemed singularly unaffected by the episode. “Dark throws stools,” he shrugged. “Hutch throws rooms.”

Dark did in truth seem committed to fail-safe. One story told of a time during his playing days when following an especially painful defeat Dark sat before his locker, methodically shredding a discarded uniform to tatters. “Some day,” said Herman Franks, “Alvin’ll get so mad he’ll tear up his own uniform.”

And there was the time in 1963 when Dark took José Pagan to one side after a game, handed him a $50 bill, and said, “Take the boys to supper,” meaning the Latin players on the Giant team. A few days later, following a loss to St. Louis, Dark called Pagan aside once more. “José,” he said, “I’m fining you for not hustling.”

“How much?” Pagan asked.

“Fifty dollars,” Dark told him.

From the time in his first season as manager when he removed Marichal from the game in which he had a three-run lead and had already struck out twelve Dodgers, Dark had impressed his players as overreactive. His problem here was compounded by his rules for player conduct and his clubhouse lectures, both of them sprinkled with biblical admonitions which, including as they did his own continuing breach of the Third Commandment, did little to improve his authority.

By the beginning of the 1964 season, Dark’s level of communication with the players was at perigee. And it was in this setting that he named Willie Mays to be captain of the Giants, as he himself had been captain of the Giants under Durocher in New York.

—Charles Einstein

Baseball fiction is rarely just about baseball, but instead uses baseball as a platform, or perhaps as a window, to gain perspective on deeper or wider subject matter, such as machismo and manhood, or American society and tradition. The plotlines of baseball novels often deal with issues of loss, perseverance and redemption.

Whatever the grander objective might be, one challenge faced by every writer of baseball fiction is to just get the baseball right. The descriptions of games and players, as well as accompaniments such as stadiums, clubhouses, equipment, injuries and so on, must not only be vivid and accurate in detail but also appropriate in tone and weight, organically nurturing the characters and story.

Few novels have handled this daunting objective with more gusto than this one:

I tried to size up the rest of the infield while we worked out. On second we had a wiry, leather-faced, sour-looking little guy named Worm Warnock. I doubted if he could hit his weight divided by his hat size, but he looked like he could do the job in the field. And maybe he could bunt.

Over at third Rainbow Smith wasn’t exactly Brooks Robinson. He was quite a bit fatter than he was quick and I could see that he got his name from the way his throws traveled to first. But he’d been up with Oakland during a couple of their good years back before Charlie Finley tried turning Alameda Stadium into a funeral home. Since it was clear he didn’t get that far with the glove, you had to figure he could hit. And he had put several out during batting practice—nothing like I’d done, of course, but not bad. With him and me at the corners we’d have power, even if we were a little short on grace.

And we could leave the grace, by God, to Jefferson Mundy. He was everything Julius had said he was. He had the kind of speed and hands the Lord gives a lot of black kids in place of a decent chance. And even from deep in the hole he sent the ball on a line to first.

Lefty had managed to sign most of the players on this team either because they were old or were twisted in some way, but he’d nailed four young ones, good ones that were on the way up—Julius and Mundy and that pitcher Brown and another black kid out in right field named Atticus Flood. I thought at first that those four kids just hadn’t used their heads, hadn’t known any better, but the truth of it was that on a good day Lefty could talk the Pope into opening a whorehouse.

And the main show during that part of practice was Lefty’s one-armed juggling act. Other than him we didn’t have any coaches, so he hit grounders to us while a deaf Cajun relief pitcher named Dummy Boudreaux hit flies to the outfielders. Lefty would lodge the meat end of the fungo bat in between his right jaw and shoulder, then toss the ball up high enough to get his hand back on the bat and start moving it toward the ball. And he hit sharp grounders that went right where he wanted them to.

After he got through with us, he called Dummy off and hit some to the outfielders so they could work on their throws to the bases. He smashed the fuckers too, sometimes bouncing them off the wall and giving us a chance to work on relays. He must’ve been something to see in his prime. But I bet the guys he played with hated his ass. Nobody likes to get showed up by a cripple.

Right after infield most of the team headed to the showers, but I felt like taking some licks against the pitching machine, so me and Julius went over to the cage on the other side of the right-field bleachers and took turns at it for about a couple of hours. It’s a good way to get your swing in a groove, but batting in a cage like that takes a lot of the joy out of hitting. You got screen all around you and no matter how good you hit the ball, it’s not going over seventy feet. What I do is try to hit shots up the middle and put dents in the machine.

—Donald Hays

The following may or may not be fiction; I’m not sure. It was the work of neither a sportswriter nor a baseball novelist, but was instead produced by a fellow who’d enjoyed a long and successful career as a hard-boiled crime novelist and Hollywood screenwriter. The book is ostensibly a series of conversations on various baseball topics with a garrulous old man who’d long ago been a journeyman major leaguer (“good-field, no-hit” is how he describes himself), but who prefers to remain anonymous for this publication. That certainly might be true; there’s nothing in the book that suggests it isn’t.

Yet these conversations are such a perfectly clever literary device, a surpassingly engaging method for the author to just be presenting his own observations and opinions as a lifelong fan, that I’ve never allowed myself to accept it at face value. I am certain that this very ambiguity is quite intentional, gently forcing the reader to ponder another layer of meaning in the exercise, confronting the fine lines between recollection and invention, between authority and amateurism, between, indeed, truth and fiction. It’s utterly brilliant.

And the baseball talk is exactly the stuff that all of us have reveled in for countless hours, over countless beers with countless buddies. When reading this book, it’s all you can do to stop yourself from butting in aloud with your own two cents:

“How do you break a slump?” I asked, expecting pearls of wisdom.

But the Old Timer just sat and looked at me in silence for a while. Finally he said, “You’ve been around baseball. You’ve got eyes. How can you ask a question like that? It sounds like the classic question of the rookie reporter why he didn’t give the home run sign more often.”

“But slumps are broken every year!”

“True. But nobody knows how—and to tell you truth, nobody knows what to do. Let’s take a batting slump. The batter—let’s call him Charley—goes along for the first two months of the season getting his normal amount of base hits. He seldom has a real bad day. He’s happy and relaxed. Then one day in a long tough doubleheader he goes 0 for 9. He feels like breaking all of his bats, but nobody pays much attention, including the manager, who gives him a pat on the back and says, merely: ‘Tough luck.’

“But the next game Charley goes 0 for 4, and he begins to wonder what’s wrong. The next day Charley hits a couple of screaming line drives, but both of them are caught—one sensationally—and again he goes 0 for 4, which makes him 0 for 17.

“Now his teammates begin to look at him askance, and the manager shifts about uncomfortably on the bench. Charley is a big hitter. What can he say? The first time up the next day the pitcher hits him on the hands and he gets a two-base dunker to right field, and everybody is happy—the slump’s broken—but he hardly gets a loud foul the rest of the day. Now he’s 1 for 21. And the team is beginning to have rough going with Charley, the number-three man, unable to drive in runs or get on base. Now he begins to strike out on bad pitches—and the real slump begins.

“Boy! I’ve seen some dandies. Charley will get a hit here and there, but pretty soon he’s 6 for 41, and now the panic’s on. He takes advice from everybody, tries new bats, changes his stance, comes out early in the morning for batting practice. He may even go to a medium, give money to a church, or take up yoga. Nothing works.

“He’s dropped down to seventh in the batting order, then one awful day a pinch hitter is sent up for him in a tight game. The next day he drops a routine fly ball in the outfield and two unearned runs score, blowing the game. Now the manager, who must win or be fired, secretly hates Charley’s guts, and even thinks about trading him—he may even mention the possibility to the general manager. But the latter is too nervous and too astute to consider the possibility of having a real fine hitter like Charley coming back to haunt and embarrass him.

“Then comes the awful day—the day Charley has dreaded. He is not in the starting line-up. It goes out on all the wire services: CHARLEY IS BENCHED. When things were running smooth, Charley was always being good-naturedly ‘agitated’ by his teammates. Now they are all scrupulously considerate and polite.

“Everything has changed—and to Charley it seems that he is living in a nightmare. He can’t think of anything but base hits. His wife doesn’t know where to turn he’s so impossible to live with, and the children hardly know him. The owners call the general manager in and ask him what the hell is going on—why should they pay a man forty-five thousand dollars to sit on the bench? What can the general manager say? He’s an old baseball man from away back and knows that there is just no explanation for a slump and no ready remedy.

“Charley is reinstated in the line-up. What else can the manager do? The slump continues. And now luck—or rather bad luck—begins to really take its toll. Charley is hitting the ball hard and clean but right at somebody. His teammates assure him that soon they will start to ‘drop in.’ But they don’t. One spectacular play after another robs Charley of base hits—if a big play is made by the opposition, it’s against Charley. He is now what is called ‘snakebit.’ It’s all completely irrational, and no graphs, statistics, or theories will explain it.

“Then one hot midsummer day, Charley goes 2 for 3 against a real good pitcher. Everybody holds their breath. The next day Charley uncorks a three-run homer to win an important ball game. The next day he sprays hits all over the place, and now the exasperated pitchers, who had been treating him with disdain, start throwing fast balls under his chin and cursing him to themselves.

“Charley is used to this and keeps swinging. Dunkers drop in, outfielders misjudge terrific wallops to the outfield that go for triples, line drives scream past the same infielders who were previously catching them. The slump is over. When Charley is asked by reporters how it all happened in the first place, he merely shrugs and says, ‘God knows.’”

I felt that we’d got back into what I can only call a kind of mysticism, so I asked, “But isn’t there any explanation for a slump by a good hitter?”

“Oh, yes,” said the Old Timer. “Hundreds of them, by different people, all different. One explanation there is not. For what it’s worth, here’s what I think. Luck can run against a man persistently—if you don’t believe that, you have never had any extended experience at the crap table. Why it does, I’ll not attempt to say.

“So … luck starts running against a real good hitter. If it continues he gets nervous and begins to press. Pretty soon he goes up to the plate praying for a hit, then feeling that he’ll never get one. He becomes discouraged. And a discouraged man is a liability at the plate. There is only one attitude to take in the batter’s box—the pitcher is a bum and you are going to murder him! If you are nervous or scared or dubious, you’re an easy out unless fate is on your side….”

“So you think then that all slumps of this kind are psychological?” I asked.

“I hate the word,” said the Old Timer, “but I guess it’s close enough. It’s a matter of spirit, and as spirit, not pitching, is seventy-five per cent of baseball …” He broke off, and sat thinking.

- W.R. Burnett

References & Resources
Brendan C. Boyd and Fred C. Harris, The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading, and Bubble Gum Book, Boston: Little, Brown, 1973, pp. 8-9.

Roy Blount, Jr., “Beware of Moe,” This Great Game, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971, pp. 237-238.

Charles Einstein, Willie’s Time, New York: Lippincott, 1979, pp. 199-200.

Donald Hays, The Dixie Association, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984, pp. 36-37.

W.R. Burnett, The Roar of the Crowd: Conversations With an Ex-Big Leaguer, New York: Potter, 1964, pp. 90-94.

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