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January 25, 2008

Prospectus Matchups

Baseball on the Bookshelf

by Jim Baker

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A couple of years back, I devoted a column to randomly selecting baseball books from my collection and commenting on passages found therein. I have about as many non-baseball books as I have baseball books, so today I decided to do something different: I would go to non-baseball books and try to find baseball references in them. This proved to be a lot more difficult than I imagined. In fact, given the time constraint between coming up with the idea and my filing deadline and the fact that I have a finite number of books, I only came across four such references. Here they are:

  • The 1965 Official Guide: New York World's Fair

    Being adjacent to the fairgrounds, Shea Stadium gets numerous mentions in the Fair's second-year guidebook. This is the most notable and the most ironic mention, given Shea's lame-duck status in 2008 and its date with oblivion:

    Long after the Fair has gone, the city's new Shea Stadium will remain as the latest word in comfort, convenience and design for sporting arenas…Among the features of this unique ball park is the columnless structure, which enables all patrons to enjoy the unobstructed view of the field. To help fans find their seats, each level of the Stadium is a different color…and tickets and the Stadium's 21 escalators are color-keyed to match. There are 40 acres of parking space (which fairgoers may use between sporting events), as well as plenty of snack stands and 54 restrooms…Box seats, $3.50; Reserved, $2.50; general admission, $1.30.

    "Long," but not quite that long--forty-three years past, to be exact. I suppose that's a pretty good run. Nothing like the Roman Colosseum, mind you, but longer than the ashtray stadiums that came along after Shea.

    I put the ticket prices in there for amusement's sake, except they're not really that amusing when you think about it. Don't you like how people quote old prices for that purpose? When mentioning that bread used to be a quarter a loaf, they never mention that a week's salary might have been $20 at the same time. The minimum hourly wage in 1965 was almost exactly that of a general admission ticket to Shea Stadium. While not a standard price, there are several games this year where a fan can buy a seat to see the Mets play the Nationals (April 9 and April 15) for just $5.00. That's lower than the hourly minimum wage. The box seats are a different matter, of course.

  • American Quest by Jack Barth

    The author went on 10 quests to find the essence of the American experience. One of them included kissing 10 female stars of 1960s television shows. Another was working in the world's largest McDonald's in Vinita, Oklahoma. He also retraced the route taken by the characters in the movie Easy Rider. The chapter that suited my purposes described his journey to the gravesites of nine baseball players, one from every position; among others, Mordecai Brown, Ty Cobb, Joe Jackson, and Babe Ruth were on his agenda. Once there, he took a photo of his dog posing next to the tombstone or--as in the case of Cobb--crypt. Here is a part of the description of his visit to the last resting place of Hall of Fame shortstop Rabbit Maranville:

    Rabbit's accomplishments on the 'field of dreamsicles' is unnoted; he is identified only as USNRF, WWI. His first wife, Elizabeth, who died tragically at twenty-three, in the middle of Rabbit's career, is buried beside him. But Rabbit, always a gamer, rallied and married an apparently much younger woman. Helena--no dates are given for her, implying she might still be alive. The simple, unbaseball-y tombstone also implies that Helena, a vital woman, has better things on which to spend the estate.
  • Zany Afternoons by Bruce McCall

    I say without reservation that Bruce McCall is one of the cleverest men alive. He is a brilliant writer and talented artist who understands and imitates the popular graphic idioms of old like few others. Not only is he hilarious, but he has a vast knowledge both general and specific that most parodists do not possess. Zany Afternoons is a collection of his work that for the most past initially appeared on the pages of Playboy and National Lampoon. Here is a selection from his parody of Lawrence Ritter's The Glory of Their Times. McCall's version, populated by old-time ballplayers of his own creation and illustrated with his versions of tobacco cards and photos of impossible catches, is called "The Glory of Their Hindsight":

    I'm sick and tired of all the jokes about those old uniforms with the thick flannel and long sleeves and little soft collars. They was our pajamas. Wear your pajamas, see how you like it. No choice back in 1908, who had the money for a uniform? Had to pay admittance to the games we played in. Never saw that wrote up in all the crap and claptrap they write about the old days. Or Mr. Comiskey paying us off in play money…How was I to know? Come from a farm down Missouri way. Never saw real money before.

    A recurring theme in his piece is the cheapness of the owners. His players walk from New York to St. Louis on road trips and paint their uniforms on their naked bodies because the owners are too tight to spring for train tickets or clothes. The comic payoff is that, in the end, they all say they wouldn't trade their experience for the world.

    When a writer works a side of the street with which you are familiar (like old-time baseball in my case) and gets it so right, one can only assume that he's also getting it right when he covers other subjects. That's my take on McCall. Every time he's veered into areas I know something about (the auto industry, house trailers, World War II), he nails them. You can find his work in The New Yorker, but do yourself a favor and track down his collected works as well as his autobiography, Thin Ice.

  • The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 (The Liberation Trilogy) by Rick Atkinson

    There are certain incidents in military history that I find especially frustrating to read about. The Korean War is maddening, as is the Hürtgen Forest campaign in World War II. I've also always found the Italian campaign to be quite vexing from the high ground of hindsight. Atkinson's book is a very well-written and detailed look at how and why the Allies bled themselves on the Italian boot, the necessity of which is often called into question by historians.

    There are two baseball references that I can recall. When allied troops landed at Anzio in early 1944, they stayed in their beachhead and lived under the guns of the Germans for four months. Atkinson describes how a culture developed among the soldiers in this isolated pocket that included newspaper publishing and horse racing as well as baseball:

    Troops played baseball on improvised diamonds, using folded T-shirts for bases and slit trenches for dugouts.

    I spent a lot of the book wanting to go back in time and bitch-slap people like Generals Bernard Montgomery and Mark Clark for their incompetence and pursuit of self-glorification at the expense of human lives. I realize this is probably not the proper way to read history, but it is a habit that has always plagued me when I do. The Day of Battle is a book filled with grim statistics and no-punches-pulled descriptions of the carnage that resulted when false starts, bad planning, a determined and talented enemy, poor weather, and unforgiving terrain hampered almost every move the Allies made. The most moving passage, to me, was at the very end when Atkinson discusses the immediate aftermath of the death of Jack Toffey, an American officer killed in action during the drive on Rome:

    More than three weeks passed before Jack Toffey's family learned of his death. 'We see you captured Rome,' his mother-in-law wrote him…At the house on East Long Street in Columbus, Helen and the two children went about their days without knowing that their lives had changed forever. An early summer heat wave scorched central Ohio. Toffey's beloved Reds slipped to fourth place in the National League, but the minor league Columbus Red Birds climbed to second in the American Association. In an exhibition game featuring the pitching greats Dizzy Dean and Satchel Paige, Model Dairy of Columbus beat the Chicago American Giants, a Negro League Club.

    I can be as dispassionate as the next guy, but when a writer personalizes one of the casualty statistics with the baseball gambit, I lose it.

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