Great baseball writing is no different than great writing on any other subject. The writer’s fundamentals—the equivalents of throwing strikes, hitting the cutoff man and putting the ball in play—always apply. Great writing grows from depth of insight, originality of phrasing, soundness of structure and appropriateness of tone and pace, regardless of the topic addressed.
But my intention isn’t to be a baseball writing analyst so much as it is to be a baseball writing fan. As fans of the game on the field, we’ll forever recall, and replay in our minds, the most breathtaking and satisfying plays in history, achieved by the game’s most celebrated players. Today’s highlight reel will focus on a few of the most scintillating performances by baseball writers. Here are some nuggets of the all-time best, presented for your delectation.
Let’s begin with something from perhaps the most revered baseball writer of the first half of the 20th century. In a few paragraphs he relates an anecdote that’s at once descriptive and dreamlike, wry and warm, and deeply illuminating the very core of some of the most hallowed figures in the sport’s history:
An enterprising promoter who had a good sense for publicity thought up the idea of having a reunion of the baseball celebrities training in Florida in March, 1927, and arranged for quite a spread in Venice, Florida. It was after the Florida bubble of the middle twenties had burst, but Venice hadn’t heard about it and was still holding open house. Among those who accepted were Connie Mack, whose Athletics trained at Fort Myers; Wilbert Robinson, whose daffy Dodgers dodged line drives at Clearwater; John J. McGraw, whose Giants head-quartered at near-by Sarasota; and Miller Huggins of the Yankees, whose Babe Ruth circus had pitched its spring tent in St. Petersburg.
Connie Mack, coming up from Fort Myers, had to make the longest trip to reach the party. Even though national prohibition was then very much on the nation’s statute books, the giver of the party felt it incumbent upon himself to extend liquid refreshment in the best of southern traditions. The flowing bowl was given no chance to overflow as the notables of the game awaited the arrival of the safari from Fort Myers. Chubby, cheerful Uncle Robbie, the Brooklyn pilot and former great catcher for the old Orioles, ladled out potent potions for himself and others in his Dodger party.
Tall, spare, six-foot-four-inch Connie Mack, his kindly blue eyes blinking as he came out of the darkness, eventually entered the feast chamber, accompanied by a Philadelphia sportswriting delegation, headed by rotund Jimmy Isaminger.
Catching sight of the tall Philadelphia manager, once one of Robinson’s catching rivals in the National League, Uncle Robbie toddled over to Mack and threw his arms around him like a friendly Newfoundland embracing a greyhound. Then, reaching up, he kissed Connie affectionately on both cheeks, saying: “You lovable old son of a sea cook! You lovable old son of sea cook!”
Now, there wasn’t a drop of Latin blood in Uncle Robbie’s 275-pound chassis, and he was all he-man; a rough, uncut jewel whose adjectives still were of the free and easy days of the Baltimore Orioles of the nineties. Professional baseball isn’t kissing business, and there wasn’t another man in the game upon whose cheeks Wilbert would have planted those vigorous smackers. Can anyone imagine him kissing the ruddy cheeks of John McGraw or the weazened face of little Huggins? Robbie was a man with no inhibitions; he acted on impulse, yet somehow that night he spoke and acted for all baseball—fans, writers, owners, managers, players—past and present, in his impulsive greeting of the great McGillicuddy.
– Fred Lieb
Next we’re treated to as rich and evocative a linking of a ballclub’s image to its physical and cultural place as has ever been rendered:
Accents echo in the phrase “Brooklyn Dodgers.” The words strike each other pleasantly, if not poetically, suggesting a good-humored bumping about. You get an altogether different sense from other nicknames. The Brooklyn Astros would skate in the Roller Derby. The Brooklyn Tigers would play football on a stony sandlot. The Brooklyn Braves would be an all-black schoolyard basketball team in 1945. The Brooklyn Yankees will not penetrate the consciousness. It is an antiphrase, like the Roman Greeks.
As far as anyone knows, the nickname proceeded from benign absurdity. Brooklyn, being flat, extensive and populous, was an early stronghold of the trolley car. Enter absurdity. To survive in Brooklyn one had to be a dodger of trolleys. After several unfortunate experiments in nomenclature, the Brooklyn National League Baseball Team became the Dodgers during the 1920s, and the nickname endured after polluting buses had come and the last Brooklyn trolley had been shipped from Vanderbilt Avenue to Karachi.
Brooklyn is not an inherently funny word, although the old Brooklyn accent, in which one pronounced “oil” as “earl” and “earl” as “oil,” was amusing. The native ground might be enunciated “Bvooklyn” and “thirty” was a phonetist’s Armageddon. It could be “tirdy,” “toidy,” “dirdy,” or “doidy.” But dialect, all dialect, Brooklyn, Boston, German, Jewish, British, Russian, Italian dialect, is the stuff of easy rough humor. Have you ever heard a Georgia belle insert four question marks into a declarative paragraph? “Ah went to Rollins? That’s in Florida? South of heah? An’ real pretty?” When a Georgia girl says no, she asks a question.
The lingering sense of Brooklyn as a land of boundless mirth with baseball obbligato was the creation of certain screenwriters and comedians. Working for a living, they synthesized that Brooklyn. In one old patriotic movie, Bing Crosby defends the American flag against a cynic by asking others “to say what Old Glory stands for.” A Southerner talks of red clay and pine trees. A Westerner describes sunset in the Rocky Mountains. But it is a Brooklynite who carries the back lot at Paramount Pictures. His speech begins with the apothegm, “Hey, Mac. Ever see steam comin’ out a sewer in Flatbush?” As if that were not enough, can anyone forget William Bendix dying happy in a mangrove swamp? Just before a Japanese machine gunner cut him in two, Bendix had heard by shortwave that the Dodgers scored four in the ninth. Requiescat in pace. Winning pitcher: Gregg (7 and 5).
– Roger Kahn
Description of on-field action has never been better than what follows. This is, in fact, just one tiny portion of an entire book devoted to the vivid recounting of a single game, as witnessed from a seat in the center field bleachers:
Now it was Liddle, jerking into motion as Wertz poised at the plate, and then the motion smoothed out and the ball came sweeping in to Wertz, a shoulder-high pitch, a fast ball that probably would have been a fast curve, except that Wertz was coming around and hitting it, hitting it about as hard as I have ever seen a ball hit, on a high line to dead center field.
For whatever it is worth, I have seen such hitters as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Jimmy Foxx, Ralph Kiner, Hack Wilson, Johnny Mize, and lesser-known but equally long ball hitters as Wally Berger and Bob Seeds send the batted ball tremendous distances. None, that I recall, ever hit a ball any harder than this one hit by Wertz in my presence.
And yet I was not immediately perturbed. I have been a Giant fan for years, twenty-eight years to be exact, and I have seen balls hit with violence to extreme center field which were caught easily by Mays, or Thomson before him, or Lockman or Ripple or Hank Lieber or George Kiddo Davis, that most marvelous fly catcher.
I did not—then—feel alarm, though the crack was loud and clear, and the crowd’s roar rumbled behind it like growing thunder. It may be that I did not believe the ball would carry as far as it did, hard hit as it was. I have seen hard-hit balls go a hundred feet into an infielder’s waiting glove, and all that one remembers is crack, blur, spank. This ball did not alarm me because it was hit to dead center field—Mays’ territory—and not between the fielders, into those dread alleys in left-center and right-center which lead to the bullpens.
And this was not a terribly high drive. It was a long low fly or a high liner, whichever you wish. This ball was hit not nearly so high as the triple Wertz struck earlier in the day, so I may have assumed that it would soon start to break and dip and come down to Mays, not too far from his normal position.
Then I looked at Willie, and alarm raced through me, peril flaring against my heart. To my utter astonishment, the young Giant center fielder—the inimitable Mays, most skilled of outfielders, unique for his ability to scent the length and direction of any drive and then turn and move to the final destination of the ball—Mays was turned full around, head down, running as hard as he could, straight toward the runway between the two bleacher sections.
I knew then that I had underestimated—badly underestimated—the length of Wertz’s blow.
– Arnold Hano
Magnificent baseball writing is not a lost art, of course. Plenty of it is being crafted in our own era, though it’s sometimes difficult to find, sorting through the heaps of trite inconsequence that are piled up daily in the blogosphere, and at Barnes & Noble. Here we find a baseball book from just a few years ago that’s worthy of the best of any era:
Back in the dugout after his dramatic home run, Strawberry motions me to the locker room runway. “Got a cigarette, Cigarette Boy?” he asks.
Cigarettes were Strawberry’s last remaining vice and the key to my setting him up for my hatchet job in Rolling Stone. Unable to carry smokes in his uniform because they would break if he had to slide, Strawberry had for weeks let me feed him Newport Menthols, his John Shaft-like brand of choice. I’d pick up the cigarettes each morning on the way to the ballpark as my bait. And for the time it took him to finish each one, he would talk to me without resorting to the “Praise Jesus” bromides and jock-talk clichés with which he used to armor himself against the reporters, fans, and teammates who poked and pointed at him like he was a hungry bear chained to a stake.
He was still perceived as the baddest man in baseball, a ballplayer who only by the grace of the God he now praised so incessantly was spending his summer hitting jacks in St. Paul instead of guarding his arse in federal prison. And with the help of my ready pack of cigarettes, I had him.
“The Yankees don’t want me. Bob Watson hates me,” Strawberry said, depressed, the all-purpose say-hey smile that he showed the public limp with hurt. Taking a deep drag off the Newport, he mulled the refusal of Watson to even consider giving Darryl one last chance to redeem his once-glorious major league career.
I’d even started smoking again, just for the moments in the locker room or under the grandstand when Darryl Strawberry would call me “Cigarette Boy” and confide in me as a fellow smoker and exile from the city, one eighties burnout to another.
True, I felt like an utter and total ####. After spending weeks with the man, I genuinely liked him. If he was a con man, he was an excellent con man. Strawberry listened to the cheers of the St. Paul fans, who were still applauding his dinger, reverberating above. “I can’t take this much longer,” he said, sighing. “That last bus ride to Thunder Bay to play the Whiskey Jacks killed my legs.”
– Neal Karlen
The following was written as a magazine piece in 1963. These dispatches became so deeply and widely enjoyed that they were regularly collected and re-presented in book form, comprising perhaps the pinnacle of baseball writing achievement. Here we’re offered a seamless analogy between the ballpark and the home, indeed between baseball and life:
The dirt, the noise, the chatter, the bursting life of the Met grandstands are as rich and deplorable and heart-warming as Rivington Street. The Polo Grounds, which is in the last few months of its disreputable life, is a vast assemblage of front stoops and rusty fire escapes. On a hot summer evening, everyone around here is touching someone else; there are no strangers, no one is private. The air is alive with shouts, gossip, flying rubbish.
Old-timers know and love every corner of the crazy, crowded, proud old neighborhood. The last-row walkup flats in the outer-most lower grandstands, where one must peer through girders and pigeon nests for a glimpse of green; the little protruding step at the foot of each aisle in the upper deck that trips up the unwary beer-balancer with its slanting shanty roof, beneath which the relief pitchers sit motionless, with their arms folded and their legs extended; and the good box seats, just on the curve of the upper deck in short right and short left: front windows on the street, where one can watch the arching fall of a weak fly ball and know in advance, like one who sees a street accident in the making, that it will collide with that ridiculous, dangerous upper tier for another home run.
Next year, or perhaps late this summer, all this will vanish. The Mets are moving up in the world, heading toward the suburbs. Their new home, Shea Stadium, in Flushing Meadow Park, will be cleaner and airier: a better place for the children.
Most of the people there will travel by car rather than by subway; the commute will be long, but the residents will be more respectable. There will be broad ramps, no crowding, more privacy. All the accommodations will be desirable: close to the shopping centers, and set in perfect, identical curves, with equally good views of the neat lawns. Indeed, a man who leaves his place will have to make an effort to remember exactly where it is, so he won’t get mixed up on his way back and forget where he lives.
It will be several years, probably, before the members of the family, older and heavier and at last sure of their place in the world, indulge themselves in some moments of foolish reminiscence: “Funny, I was thinking of the old place today. Remember how jammed we used to be back there? Remember how hot and noisy it was? I wouldn’t move back there for anything, and anyway it’s all torn down now, but, you know, we sure were happy in those days.”
– Roger Angell
References & Resources
Frederick G. Lieb, Connie Mack: Grand Old Man of Baseball, New York: Putnam’s, 1945, pp. v-vi.
Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer, New York: Signet, 1971, pp. xiii-xiv.
Arnold Hano, A Day in the Bleachers, New York: Da Capo, 1955, pp. 116-118.
Neal Karlen, Slouching Toward Fargo, New York: Avon, 1999, pp. 15-16.
Roger Angell, “S is for So Lovable,” The Summer Game, New York: Popular Library, 1972, pp. 66-67.