This profession be murder

September 27th, 2008 → 2:38 pm @

I’m a week late linking to my own review of John Darnton’s Black and White and Dead All Over. Don’t get bogged down in the seeming solipsism of the whole thing — I’m an author who has written a book about the Times writing in the Times about a book by a former Times reporter that’s about a set of murders that takes place in a fictional New York newspaper modeled after the Times — it’s a great book. And a pretty well-written review, if I don’t say so myself.

Post Categories: Book reviews & John Darnton & New York Times

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

April 9th, 2007 → 9:24 am @

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