Playing ‘The Sun Field’ againby Joe Distelheim
July 17, 2008
THE SUN FIELD, by Heywood Broun, Rvive Books, $14.
I answered publisher David Wilk's query: Sure, I'd be glad to review his new edition of The Sun Field, and I'm old enough to recognize the name of its author, Heywood Broun.
He replied: "It is nice to know someone who knows who Broun was (though there was also his son, Heywood Hale Broun, the sports announcer with the loud plaid jackets. (He) is whom you may be thinking of—Heywood the elder died very young)."
Well, not really. We who grew up thinking America's other pastime was reading about baseball know the pretelevision Broun, he of the celebrated Algonquin Round Table, he who matched witticisms with the likes of Dorothy Parker, he who wrote the lead sentence The Fireside Books of Baseball called the most famous in the history of baseball-game coverage: "The Ruth is mighty and shall prevail."
Wilk's aim is to republish "lost literary gems." The Sun Field is the first. It was published originally in the early 1920s, a decade in which spectator sports, baseball in particular, captured America's consciousness as never before. Baseball's appeal was helped in no small measure by the colorful men who played it and the colorful men who wrote about them. Babe Ruth and Heywood Broun embodied those categories; barely disguised as fictional characters, they are two of the three main actors in this brief novel.
Like Ruth, Broun was outsized physically and in reputation. He was a figure of admiration and controversy; he wrote for major magazines and several New York newspapers and rubbed egos with the fashionable opinion-makers of his time. He also lost a job because of his support for the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, ran for Congress as a Socialist, and became the first president of the American Newspaper Guild.
And he married Ruth Hale, a tempestuous crusader whose feminism, given the times, made Gloria Steinem look like Ann Coulter. (Heywood Hale Broun's name was not happenstance; his mother went to great and strident lengths to keep her own last name.)
The Sun Field's setting and characters are explained in an introduction by novelist Darryl Brock, who deftly orients the reader to its time and cast. The tale itself is a pleasurable read: the tone airy, the pace brisk, the conversation natural, the plot subordinate to the characters. Major league baseball and the great players of the '20s are its backdrop, a baseball writer ("George" as Broun) is the narrator, a Yankees star ("Tiny Tyler" as the Babe) is central to the story. The character who drives the action, though, is the Ruth Hale figure Broun calls "Judith"; at its core, the story's about her, and about the times.
There's precious little in the way of game play-by-play or statistics, but that's not to say that the book will disappoint those who come to The Hardball Times for analysis of Troy Tulowitski's BABIP. We who prefer baseball to the back-and-forth sports appreciate its history and its lore and its roots and—not to put too fine a point on it—its place in Americana. This book is a satisfying swatch of paint on our mind's picture of the game Back Then.
Braun, introducer Brock tells us, had a caustic side. (An actor once sued him for calling the man's performance the worst he'd ever seen. The next time he reviewed the actor's work on stage, Broun wrote that it "was not up to its usual standard.")
In that spirit, I would point out that some will find $14 a bit steep for a 144-page paperback. And the reader's pleasure is interrupted more than several times by typographical errors.
Broun might have observed that the folks who revived his book had 85 years to get it right.
Joe Distelheim is chief copy editor for The Hardball Times website. He welcomes comments and suggestions via e-mail.
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