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Baseball Lit Starter Kit 

Some of the best writing on the nine-inning game

Ask a healthy percentage of American sports fans what they loathe and it is all but guaranteed that the subject of literary types getting misty about the erstwhile National Pastime will be mentioned.

Despite the frustrations engendered by the academic set's unmatched love for baseball over all other athletic endeavors, it is undeniable that no sport has inspired as much great writing. George Will, himself a passionate baseball fan, once reflected on its majesty at the expense of the nation's current pervasive sporting love, professional football, dismissing it as a brute game combining two of American society's lowest elements: violence and committee meetings.

Those of us able to appreciate the inherent superiority of baseball -- among the many attributes the game boasts over the NFL is the common sense not to ask its fans to watch a championship spectacle better known for its television advertising than what happens on the field of play -- understand that its power is so mighty and enduring that not even the current Dark Ages of Selig can kill it.

Maim it, perhaps.

Happily, such monstrosities as the designated hitter, interleague play and the wild-card playoff system can, in moments of despair, now be swatted away in the manner of the Sultan himself. All that's needed is a copy of Nicholas Dawidoff's smartly assembled anthology of baseball writing, just published by the Library of America in a handsome edition.

It contains the essentials and more than a few surprises, as well. Need to brush up on your Ernest Lawrence Thayer? Here, of course, is the author of "Casey at the Bat." A glance at the late-inning tension facing the Mudville Nine never fails to elicit a smile:

The sneer is gone from Caseys lip, his teeth are clenched in hate;

He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.

And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,

And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey's blow.

If you don't know Casey's final turn at bat by heart, or better yet, if you do, it's time to again peruse the original ode to diamond agony.

Or consider novelist John Updike's masterful account of Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams in his final game at Fenway Park. (Columnist Will, sadly absent from this collection, offered this assessment of The Splendid Splinter, the last man to bat .400, in 1941, for a season: "When Ted Williams retired in 1960, a sportswriter said that Boston knew how Britain felt when it lost India. Indeed. Britain felt diminished, but also a bit relieved.")

Updike more than ably describes the Williams career, the Williams mystique and the sublime Williams batting studies. Just as important, though, is the scene-setting and expert evocation of an early autumn audience at New England's tortured baseball cathedral. It includes these familiar faces:

The crowd looked less like a weekday ballpark crowd than like the folks you might find in Yellowstone National Park, or emerging from automobiles at the top of scenic Mount Mansfield. There were a lot of competitively well-dressed couples of tourist age, and not a few babes in arms. A row of five seats in front of me was abruptly filled with a woman and four children, the youngest of them two years old, if that. Someday, presumably, he could tell his grandchildren that he saw Williams play. Along with these tots and second-honeymooners, there were Harvard freshmen, giving off that peculiar nervous glow created when a sufficient quantity of insouciance is saturated with enough insecurity; thick-necked Army officers with brass on their shoulders and steel in their stares; pepperings of priests; perfumed bouquets of Roxbury Fabian fans; shiny salesmen from Albany and Fall River; and those gray, hoarse men -- taxi drivers, slaughterers, and bartenders -- who will continue to click through the turnstiles long after everyone else has deserted to television and tramporamas.

It is, in other words, a collection filled with sparkling prose. Gay Talese captures the proud, aloof, embittered Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio. Roger Kahn brings the Brooklyn Dodgers to life in all their glories -- and heartaches. David Remnick traces the end of Reggie Jackson's Hall of Fame career, armed with the slugger's harrowing words: "You don't retire at your convenience. You don't die when you're ready. . . .You're just gone."

Then, too, there is a sampling of delightful baseball fictions. An excerpt from Bernard Malamud's The Natural, the tale of Roy Hobbs turned saccharine by Hollywood and Robert Redford, remains clear-eyed and resplendent in the novelist's capable hands. From Portnoy's Complaint, Philip Roth offers unique perspective on the American game.

It is to Dawidoff's eternal credit that he selects not just one piece of writing from the incomparable Roger Angell, but four. The longtime New Yorker staffer is rivaled only by the late, great Red Smith (also represented here) when it comes to baseball chroniclers. Angell, in one of many delightful asides, inimitably describes the controversy over the 1975 World Series batter-interference no-call involving Carlton Fisk and Ed Armbrister.

"Subsequent pondering of the landmark case" -- Angell refers to the episode in Supreme Court terms, as Armbrister v. Fisk -- "and several viewings of the Series film have led me to conclude that fairness and good sense would have been best served if Armbrister had been called out and the base runner, Geronimo, returned to first. It is still plain, however, that Carlton Fisk had the best and quickest opportunity to clarify this passionate affair, with a good, everyday sort of peg down to second; irreversibly, he blew it."

Perhaps the best living sportswriter no one knows is a 90-something named W.C. Heinz. It was with great relief that I found Dawidoff's inclusion of Heinz's wrenching, unsparing profile of battered Dodgers outfielder Pete Reiser, "The Rocky Road of Pistol Pete."

An essential baseball text of recent years remains Stephen King's "Head Down," a marvelous account of small-town joy glimpsed through the eyes of a Little League team in Maine. Like any anthology, Baseball is only the beginning, a voluminous starter kit.

There are omissions aplenty for fans to argue -- the aforementioned Will, the brilliant Thomas Boswell, the Sports Illustrated writings of Peter Gammons and, most lamentably for this reader, Richard Ben Cramer's remarkable profile of Cal Ripken Jr., to name but a few modern examples -- but Dawidoff must be commended. He has taken on an enormous task, the literary equivalent of a hot dog-eating contest against Babe Ruth, and lived to tell the many, and varied, tales.

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