How to win friends, etc: A review of George Vecsey’s “Baseball”

April 9th, 2007 → 9:24 am @ // No Comments

Last fall, I was asked to review New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey‘s “Baseball,” a ponderous overview of America’s pastime. For various reasons — reasons, I was assured, that had to do with nothing so much as timing and space and certainly not with the diamond-like quality of the piece — said review never ran. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t see the light of day, and the beginning of the season seems as good a time to trot it out as any. I know this isn’t going to win me any more fans in the Times‘s sports department (or in the sportswriting fraternity more generally), but I’ve rarely been able to resist torpedoing my career when given the option. So without further ado…

By George Vecsey
252 Pages. The Modern Library. $21.95.

In 1888, Walt Whitman, the archetypal American poet, christened baseball the archetypal American game. “[It’s] America’s game, has the snap, go, fling, of the American atmosphere,” Whitman said. “[It] belongs as much to our institutions…as our constitutions, laws, is just as important in the sum total of our historic life.”

Whitman was the progenitor of what became a grand literary tradition, one that celebrated the ineffable majesty of a sport that’s frequently labeled, along with jazz and Ken Burns documentaries, one of country’s rare indigenous art forms. For more than a century, writers—from Ernest Hemingway to Don DeLillo—have waxed rhapsodic about the old ballgame, using the sport’s romanticized history as a vehicle for evoking everything from lost innocence to our society’s democratic ideals.

This young century has not yet produced one of those bittersweet masterpieces destined to take up space on the bookshelf next to Roger Kahn’s “Boys of Summer” or Roger Angell’s “The Summer Game.” George Vecsey’s “Baseball”—the latest addition to the Modern Library’s Chronicles series, in which “the world’s great historians” hold forth, usually in 150 pages or less, on “the world’s great subjects”—is packaged to suggest it belongs on said bookshelf. The front flap describes Vecsey, a sports columnist for The New York Times, as “one of the great bards of America’s Grand Old Game”; the cover is a sepia-tinged, heavily-shadowed shot of Yankee Stadium taken during the 1961 World Series.

“Baseball” is more of a frustrating jumble than a masterful history. For such a slight book, Vecsey makes a remarkable number of mistakes. The American League and National League did not “coalesce into a stable enterprise of eight teams apiece” in 1903; that occurred in 1901. When the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees for $125,000, it didn’t seem “like a pittance even at the time”; it was the most money ever paid for a baseball player. Vecsey even flubs episodes from his own past. Describing his role in the birth of the specious Curse of the Bambino, Vecsey writes, “When the Red Sox took a lead in the 1986 World Series, I…wrote a column in the New York Times (‘The Curse of Babe Ruth’) anticipating the horrors that might befall the Sox in the sixth game.” In fact, the first column Vecsey wrote invoking Ruth occurred after the Red Sox lost Game Six, and that piece was titled “Why the Mets Are Still Alive.”

Even absent these errors (and there are many more), “Baseball” is an odd hodgepodge of a book, filled with awkward non-sequiturs (Jessica Lynch makes a cameo in a discussion of Abner Doubleday) and bizarre claims. Shortly after writing that “[n]o American has ever carried the weight of racial progress, plus his own career, as publicly as Jackie Robinson did,” Vecsey posits that “[t]he only possible way to explain” a three-and-a-half decade stretch of N.L. dominance in the All-Star Game is that “the National League was Jackie Robinson’s league.” Say what? Even Robinson’s most fervent partisans wouldn’t claim the relative talent level of the All-Stars in baseball’s two leagues was still affected by Robinson more than a decade after his death.

Just as disappointing for readers looking for an actual overview of the sport is the fact that Vecsey seems to have stopped enjoying baseball sometime between the end of World War II and the beginning of Vietnam. Stan Musial, who retired in 1963, and Enos Slaughter, who played his last game in 1959, are invoked repeatedly. More recent superstars, from Johnny Bench and Mike Schmidt to Greg Maddux and Manny Ramirez, don’t even garner a single mention. Of the ten most recent Hall of Fame inductees, only two get any recognition: Paul Molitor is used as an illustration of how the designated hitter rule kept “older, slower stars” in the game and Dave Winfield serves as an example of George Steinbrenner’s free-spending ways. When Vecsey does make reference to more recent events, he sounds a bit like Montgomery Burns, the aged misanthrope from “The Simpsons.” Today’s broadcasters are labeled “Silly Boys” (twice, in fact), and “commercial-laden ‘message boards'” rarely “bother to give [out-of-town] scores.” Baseball even had “better nicknames back” in the days of “Babe” Ruth (whose actual nickname was the Sultan of Swat). Call me a philistine, but I think Donnie Baseball, the Rocket, and the Big Hurt all sound pretty cool.

The best baseball books use the game’s romanticized, storied past as a lens through which to understand its present and look ahead to its future. “Baseball” uses that past as a vehicle for alternately ignoring and griping about the present. That’s both annoying and perplexing: last year*, a record 75 million tickets were sold for major league games, and the per-game average attendance of just over 31,000 set a new record as well. Presumably it’s just these folks—fans willing to spend upwards of $200 for the privilege of watching athletes with bad nicknames play in front of commercial-laden message boards—who make up the book’s natural audience. They’d have more fun spending that $20 on a couple of overpriced ballpark hotdogs.

* The “last year” being referred to here is the 2005 season. So don’t go sending me letters about how those attendance figures are wrong.

Post Categories: Baseball & Book reviews & George Vecsey

4 Comments → “How to win friends, etc: A review of George Vecsey’s “Baseball””

  1. Jack

    17 years ago

    Yes, you are trying to kill your career. Are you crazy?


  2. miles44

    17 years ago

    Last night the most painful aspect of the game was not Joel Piniero’s inability to, like, get anybody out, but Joe Morgan’s continued insistence that the SS should never play on the right side of the 2B bag, ever. Even when The Shift resulted in a couple of outs, Morgan immediately took to explaining why the out would’ve been made with a traditional defensive set-up. Why are Morgan and McCarver still announcing? Seth, can you start a campaign to get them replaced with color commentators open to ideas that have been conceived in the last 40 years?


  3. John B.

    17 years ago

    Joe’s insistence that pitchers would come inside while the shift was on also styimed me (particularly as I watched Schilling throw like 5 straight outside.) Joe at least admitted he’d been wrong there. That guy is an absolutely dreadful announcer. Even my girlfriend (who’s watched maybe 15 baseball games in 25 years) was pointing out his stupidity.

    Re: the review – well done. The NY Times needs some serious help in the sports writer department.


  4. djarm18

    17 years ago

    Call me foolish or clueless, but I just like Joe Morgan’s voice. He’s better on radio admittedly, but I think most Sox fans can’t get over 1975.

    Seth, thank you for reading that tripe for us. That book sounds awful. A many journalists- especially in the pop music field- are long on witty commentary but come up short when it comes to sound organized ideas. But they have a name with some cache, and alas, they land a publishing deal. Maybe I’m being cynical, but tell me it ain’t so, Seth.

    Also, Seth, my employeer’s filter out any sport and blog content on our browsers… but amazingly your blog comes through!!! It is a life-saver. Please don’t start tagging your websites with hidden keywords like sports, Sox, and sex. I would then be forced to read endlessly innacurate wiki postings on subjects like solar flares or something.

    Go Sawx!


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