GRAFFITI ON THE HOUSE THAT RUTH BUILT
A baseball game takes up, at most, four hours of your day. Here in Minnesota, you might get to the Dome early, check out batting practice, get your scorecard ready and eat before the National Anthem so that you can direct all your attention at the game, and not worry about mustard or losing your appetite when Lee Greenwood comes on. Afterwards, you might just wait until the crowds thin to the point where walking is easy. But eventually you have to go outside. Eventually, you have to face real life. Fortunately, real life isnt so oppressive that we can forget the ballgame.
Sometimes, I think, we forget that. When we look back on our favorite teams of the past, our memories gloss over what we were worried about en route to the ball game. This isnt necessarily bad. Thats what baseball is for: an escape from reality.
Thing is, if you mention 1977 to a New Yorker, they dont have the luxury of staying within the confines of Yankee Stadium. Back then, if you got to the ballpark early you might have noticed the smoke from the burning buildings, overheard the shouting between the Bella Abzug supporter and Ed Koch fans. You worried about your job, about the economy, and about your safety, especially after the game, when, if you had a date and thought that making out was a good idea, you ran the risk of being blown away by the Son of Sam. I cant imagine that someone reminiscing about the Summer of 77 would forget all that. The Yankees werent the whole story.
Love New York or hate New York: if you dont find a book like Jonathan Mahlers Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, Twenty-five bucks even) a thrill, then I recommend you stick with the Metrodome. For that dead neighborhood and the safety of the roof will keep you secure and away from the dread of a big city.
The curtains rise on Mahlers tale during the bicentennial celebration in 1976, when mayor Abe Beame still thought he had a chance, when Jimmy Carter was still perceived as a savior, and the New York Yankees were en route to their first pennant in twelve years. Baseball-wise, there was reason for optimism: The Yanks had signed Reggie Jackson (over the Montreal Expos, for Christs sake) to give them some of the fireworks that had been missing from their embarrassing four game sweep at the hands of the Reds the prior October. Billy Martin was managing the Bombers, an election was on its way, and if it seemed as if the city was about to rebound. But like a rubber ball, the city had to hit bottom to bounce, and that bottom was still a great distance away.
New York City in 1977 was at a rolling boil, and Mahler does a masterful job of dropping the reader right in the center of the crucible. This is especially poignant for the reader who comes at this book from a baseball perspective: we can see just how harrowing it would have been to have made our way to Yankee Stadium that summer. We like to give our kids a sense of the past: How could you tell them about the Yankees in 1977 without mentioning the rise of the porn shops in the city? You might have read the Post, which went from a liberal daily to a right-wing scandal sheet in a years time, the first stages of Rupert Murdochs invasion of America. There was partying at the Studio 54, or, (and these are the secrets you would keep from your kid), you swung at Platos Retreat.
Most folks didnt, of course (swing, that is). Many simply went to work, did their best, and watched in bewilderment as the world fell apart around them. Cops and firemen were laid off, raising the tension in an already tense metropolis. Then, during one of the worst heat waves in New York City history, the power went out, resulting in the worst public disturbance in the citys history (and, consequently, the largest mass arrest). Whole neighborhoods fell apart, stores emptied, and finally, the city burned. To add to the mix, the Son of Sam prowled the night shooting young couples, sending public warnings to Jimmy Breslin of The Daily News, the apocalyptic warnings that he would kill again and fill the streets with blood if he wasnt stopped. For quite some time, he wasnt.
Amidst these crises, New Yorkers struggled to go about their daily lives, while politicians rushed to take advantage of the problems. In this crucible, personalities like Murdoch, Steinbrenner, Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo were forged.
But in the center of all this chaos is the New York Yankees: and even here there is discord. The poor baseball fan had no calm center then, for free agency had reared its ugly head, and I dont think that New Yorkers, who would stand to benefit most from it, totally embraced the concept right away (much less anyone else). For although free agency brought in Catfish Hunter, it also brought Reggie Jackson, the straw that stirred a drink that probably didnt need stirring in the first place.
And here is the brilliance of Mahlers book. A baseball writer might feel compelled to compare the chaos of New York City with the elysian comforts of the diamond, to try and portray a ragged populace finding its solace in Yankee Stadium. This is rarely the case: we forget that in these moments, when the frustrations and hatreds and self-loathing comes to a boil, sometimes the finest thing the game can give us is the ability to stand up, engage in some primal scream therapy, and direct our hate at something frivolous like baseballor others in the stands. I can just imagine what New Yorkers were thinking when they took in a game at Yankee Stadium: those bastards with their Cuomo buttons, those fags with their Abzug pins, the inbreds who dont get that Koch used to be more liberal than our Bella. God damn cops who sat out while thieves ran the city. In The Bronx is Burning, Mahler shows us that the game might be above the goo of life outside, but not so far above that it doesnt get splattered by the mess.
The Bronx is Burning is about being a New Yorker in this year, about fighting even when the city seems wrecked. And it is about the New York Yankees. Thankfully, Mahler doesnt rest the story on the vicissitudes of the team: how they win the Pennant and the World Series is not the climax of this fascinating story. Instead, the Yanks are portrayed as a product of that time, as opposed to simply being a metaphor for the city. Martin reflected the blue-collar, conservative side of the city, a side that was constantly struggling, fighting to keep its toe-hold, and, one could argue, the side that would lose the most as the city changed. But George Steinbrenner was very similar to the Murdochs and the Kochs, the power brokers who saw that they could buy cheap and be at the forefront of the citys renaissance.
Mahlers book takes us through the city with the ease of a great filmmaker: in one chapter were reading of the rise of the Son of Sam, in the next, Reggies struggles, back to the Son of Sam, and then onto the mayoral race. But he sticks with a subplot as it builds, such as the events leading to the blackout, and subsequently, the looting. The results are tense, page-turning reads about poor schmucks who cant stop a line from shorting, and subsequently, a city from falling apart.
Baseball-wise, Mahler is wise to avoid diving straight into the heart of a game. Instead, he gives you the personalities, the struggles, all of the things that we, as baseball fans, would know going in. We dont watch our games in a vacuum, we would have read about Martins struggles with Jackson, and when the fights between them broke out, thered be roaring in the stands.
Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning is not a pretty read, it doesnt rely on the usual clichés, and it might not go into volumes of detail about every subject it approaches. But this is what makes it the most exciting read of the summer. It abounds with violence, crime, bizarre sex and characters that could have come from Charles Dickens or Elmore Leonard. You can smell the smoke, feel the heat rising off the sidewalk, and feel the urge to rush the field after the World Series, and rip some turf from the ground. Although specifically about New York City in 1977, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning, is really about how baseball relates to a city, to any city, especially when times are tough. It is about the games, about how we feel about them, and what happens when the lights go down and we have to return to those blackened out houses.
Peter Schilling Jr.
THE MAN BEHIND THE MOVIE
Ive always resisted Lou Gehrig: for starters, I had the mistaken belief that Pride of the Yankees pretty much summed him up. Not only is that movie one of the worst ever made, but seems intent on making this Lou Gehrig a Gee Whiz!, milk drinking, American dime store hero. He loves his mother, his wife, and baseball, and hes not much more than sum of those cheap plastic parts. Much of his fame rests on the speech and on what is probably the dullest of baseball records: the consecutive games streak.
But recently I discovered the other end of the spectrum: the real Lou Gehrig. The Lou Gehrig who knocked the living tar out of the ball, not in towering flies the way the Babe did, but on frightening line drives that rose and rose until they powered into the stands and knocked a bleacherite unconscious. The chain-smoking, sometimes beer drinking, very infrequently foul-mouthed (but it could happen), guy who wanted to be Tarzan but ended up in westerns. The Lou Gehrig who spent his free time with fortune-telling sportswriters, and who married a possible gold-digging flapper. A lonely man who wept at Wagners Tristan and Isolde. Finally, theres the Iron Horse who had to fight aches and pains and beanings to keep his streak alive, who finally fought a losing battle with ALS, but at the same time allowed himself to be lied to about the results of his disease. In short, a guy like the best of the rest of us. Ill take the latter any day.
Jonathan Eigs new biography of Lou Gehrig, Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig (Simon & Schuster, 26.00) captures the essence of the Iron Horse, but in a way that reinforces many of the legends yet makes him seem that much more human, and therefore more impressive. The book is further distinguished in that Eig discovered a cache of letters between Dr. Paul OLeary, of the Mayo Clinic, which give insight into the disease which finally killed Gehrig.
Lou Gehrig, Eig writes, was picked on as a childfor his poverty, for his shyness, for his ethnicity, and not the least for his bulging rear end. This is typical of the fun prose that makes up the whole of this biography: Eig, unlike many biographers of the gamers of the glorious past, is not content to simply rebuild the past in front of us, to remind the reader how simple and pleasant this time was, and smother us with verisimilitude. If youre picking up a book on Lou Gehrig, the chances are excellent that you wont need to know every detail of what baseball was like back then. Instead, Eig tells Gehrigs story by following Lou Gehrig. Eig gives us just enough to flesh out the details of Gehrigs upbringing: what kind of baseball cards he would have collected (from his fathers Sweet Caporal cigarettes), to his folks saving up to buy their son the wrong handed glove. The facts work here to advance the story: Gehrig scraped along with the wrong glove for a number of years, felt harassed by classmates and was smothered by an adoring mother who might have treated him this way due to the untimely death (from sickness and poverty) of his sisters.
But what makes Luckiest Man work is its characters, including the subtle presence of the author. Eig includes various references to failed research the Gehrigs were not listed in any of the city directories during the first decade of the twentieth century, a line that evokes not only the mystery of this familys early history, but of the author poring over delicate old volumes in a dusty library, searching and searching for the real Lou Gehrig.
We get Eleanor Gehrig, a flapper with an eye for social improvement, the daughter of a free-spending, womanizing bastard who left his wife and daughter to try and squeeze out the good life on their own when he found desire in another womans arms (and lost most of his money in the depression). Eleanor could have been a leech on Gehrig, but instead we see a woman who, once married, dug her heels in against Christina, Gehrigs oppressive mother, and helped to push her husband into the spotlight he so often shunned. Here we get some of the more bizarre passages: Gehrig hiding in a lifeboat with Mary Lieb, wife of sportswriter Fred Lieb, telling fortunes and reading Ouija boards; Gehrig finally fighting for more money from the stingy Yankees; Lou hoping to get the part of Tarzan that Johnny Weismuller deserted, and settling instead for westerns. All the while there is the modest presence of Eig, who is watching these films with you, trying to look for clues to the disease that hovers over this poor mans life.
Finally, Eig turns to Gehrigs sickness. Thanks to the solid and complex portrait, it is here that Luckiest Man begins to turn truly poignant. For once, this reader at least began to have a feeling of great remorse for Lou Gehrig, a human, as opposed to Lou Gehrig, the symbol of hard work and courage. We see Gehrigs career fall apart, slowly, pathetically, the great ballplayer falling over from simple line drives, unable to hit balls out of the infield, unable to bend over. The courage that Gehrig faces becomes clear: weve seen him struggle all his life, seen where his desires lay, and know precisely where hes going to go when faced with ALS. Eig shows us how Gehrig copes after baseball, as a supporter of the men and women at the Mayo Clinic, as bureaucrat for the city of New York, and simply as a man who is suffering from the disease. Perhaps most intriguingly, in the course of his research, Eig believes that he may have unearthed the greatest baseball season ever played: Gehrigs 1938 season, which Eig firmly believes was played while the slugger fought ALS.
Forget about sixty or seventy homers in a season, Eig told me in a recent interview. I think this is the most phenomenal accomplishment the game has ever seen. ALS eats away muscle, it kills you in two or three years, and not only did he hit major league pitching, but he played every game, and he hits 29 homers with a .295 batting average. Most major leaguers dream of a season like that.
But Eig doesnt rest this biography on this sole assertion. Perhaps this book, like Mahlers Ladies and Gentlemen, succeeds more because it was not written by a sportswriter, but someone with an interest in the game and its people, but not obsessed by their image. To me, this man, Lou Gehrig, becomes that much more heroic because I know that he had his many insecurities, because he was made fun of, because he saw his talents slip away and didnt know what to do. The strength of Luckiest Man lies in Eigs faith in his characters, in knowing that we dont need more than that to be impressed by the life of Lou Gehrig.
As Eig says, Gehrig was satisfied, he was a guy who understood himself. He was satisfied not being a big star. In many respects, he was very unlucky, from being out of the spotlight, to the arguments between the women in his life. But he called himself the luckiest man because he realized he had been given so much, and he refused to let his illness define him. Luckiest Man is precisely that: the story of a simple man, whose greatest lesson may have been just knowing this simple, yet elusive, fact.
Peter Schilling Jr.
THE NEW ORDER OF THE OLDE TOWNE TEAM
"Back to Foulke . . . Red Sox fans have longed to hear it! The Boston Red Sox are World Series champions!!"
Joe Buck, Fox Sports, 27 October 2004.
Would that I could remember who said that tragedy breeds literature while triumph by comparison breeds mere scribbling. The lyrical balladry and epic prose poetry of the tragic generations must now give way to . . . well, we don't know what it will give way to, just yet. The early products are not volume enough to call accurately, and there remains a sense that merely receiving a Red Sox bibliography of triumph, never mind accepting it, will require at least half as long to acclimate as it took the Red Sox to return to the Promised Land in the first place.
The three volumes now in my hands may or may not simplify the acclimation. That is because they cover the question in a testy triptych. For every Red Sox fan who might believe it is a testiness easily passed, there might be every other Red Sox fan believing, if only by genetic disposition, that it pushes the Nation's luck too soon again, and wasn't pushing their luck too soon too often one of the critical coils in the Red Sox helix that kept them so long in purgatory in the first place?
Representing Year One B.P.L. (Before the Promised Land): Steve Kettman's One Day at Fenway: A Day in the Life of Baseball America (Atria Books, $25.00). Representing Year One A.P.L., more or less: Leigh Montville's Why Not Us? The 86-Year Journey of the Boston Red Sox Fans from Unparalleled Suffering to the Promised Land of the 2004 World Series (PublicAffairs/Perseus, $22.95). And, straddling them as if hedging the bet: Mike Vaccaro's Emperors and Idiots: The Hundred-Year Rivalry Between the Yankees and the Red Sox, from the Very Beginning to the End of the Curse (Doubleday, $24.95).
One Day at Fenways Kettmann took up the least unburdened approach of the three. A book whose core subject is a single baseball game is a book born in treachery, unless one knows entering that the projected authoreven one with Kettmann's gently arresting pedigree (a former San Francisco Chronicle sportswriter; master conceptualist for Roger Angell's most recent anthology, Game Time)has either a target incapable of boredom or a calm ability to mulct lyricism from the naked eye's blindness.
Kettmann's telling of a pocketful of stories behind the game story (the Yankees won the game, 10-7) practically invites suggestions of cinema. Never mind that among his sources and partners are Spike Lee (critiquing the Red Sox's testy ancient color line history; agreeing to throw out the first pitch, Yankee diehard though he is, in Fenway Park) and Peter Farrelly (who dares say it figures, that half the mastermind of "Dumb & Dumber" is a Red Sox fan?). He trains a cinematographer's eye and a reporter's ears and nose upon the evening and its preparatory day. John Henry's vulnerability to Brian Cashman's (this is Kettmann's phrase, not mine) "almost scholarly fascination . . . with Steinbrenner's Steinbrennerness"; Grady Little's testy introspection and pre-game interviews (what a surprise: it was the day of Manny Ramirez's blue flu) to The Mariano's hardscrabble but elegant Panamanian modesty, Bill Mueller's familial earthiness, Andy Pettitte's mind against Pedro Martinez's matter (and vice versa).
Just about the entire life of the hundred-year war between the Yankees and the Red Sox has been chronicled well enough, but you will not find it packed into one volume with the cheerful rocking of Emperors and Idiots. He threads 2004 with just about everything that seethed between the teams until that extraterrestrial October last. Though it appears not until the twenty-ninth page, the real hook is hung when Vaccaro, a seasoned and decorated New York Post reporter, hoists and salutes Lawrence University historian Jerald Podair's analogizing the rivalry to Moby-Dick. "Ahab never lands the great white whale," said Podair, "but his futile attempts produced great art. The Sox are great art and bad baseball. The Yankees are great baseball and bad art." Says Vaccaro: "Somehow, that has been of little concern to Yankees fans through the years. And of little consolation to Red Sox fans."
Throughout this book one observes and admires Vaccaro's mutually empathetic sketches of the seminal moments in this most vibrant of anyone's hundred-years war. He holds tone and timbre from the ancestral Boston Pilgrims beating Happy Jack Chesbro for the 1904 pennant clinch to Harry Frazee and the reasons Babe Ruth wore out his welcome with the Red Sox's least loved owner; from the Red Sox dark ages and the Yankee golden eras to the critical rounds and rhetoric of and around the swelling war; from the Splinter to the Clipper, Marse Joe to the Ol' Perfesser, M&M to Cinderella, Yaz to B.F. Dent, Buckner to Boone to the Idiots' wind.
And when you arrive at last to the single most classy act in Steinbrenner's bristling careerafter Pokey Reese snatched up Ruben Sierra's sharp grounder and threw him out at first, and Red Sox fans in the House That Ruthless Rebuilt simply refused in their rapture to leaveyou will refuse to leave this chronicle, if you are of the Nation, if only because you might still be wondering as did the ancient Negro spiritual, "Were we really there, when this happened to us?" Even if this time you wonder from happiness, and not hell.
Enter Montville, the former Boston Globe columnist and Sports Illustrated senior writer, whose volume is slimmer but whose thrust is from the streets and stands of dreams. Leave it to Montville, a Ted Williams biographer, to hit both reality and unreality squarely on the sweet spot as his third page turns to his fourth: "Eighty-six years. Eighty-six years. Eighty-six years. There never has been a story in American sport that came close to the long march to a baseball championship in Boston from 1918 until that final out in Busch Stadium in St. Louis."
Well, actually, there is one, and the Chicago Cubs could be said remaining on the long march. While Messrs. Kettmann and Vaccaro merely bring in as concurrent threads to a broader blanket, Montville makes his tapestry. He mingles among the Nation and draws up the generations of sorrow and surreality that have made Red Sox fans perhaps the least imitableand in a perversely charming manner the most enviablein the history of spectator sports.
The stories themselves will instruct and enchant, of course, from Crazy G and his fifty-cent shuttles to and from Fenway Park to the son of Smoky Joe Wood himself and his absence of faith in The Curse of the Big Baboon (Montville's translation); from the doctor reared a Cub fan (in itself, an upbringing carrying its own singular tragicomedy) knitting effortlessly into an adult Red Sox fan wearing his Olde Towne Team cap in Baghdad ("Here are these kids, don't know what's going to happen next, could get their heads blown off in half an hour, and they wanted to talk about the Red Sox") to the lady of several hundred bumper stickers and facial paintswho festooned her car with tape, pictures, victory stories, and then spurned the offer to buy a Red Sox World Championship flag for the car because it was "a little ostentatious."
But for the most part Montville spins it all off perhaps the best of simple thumbnails as to just what has made Red Sox baseball transdimensional in ways that no other team's could have beennot the Cubs; not the early, improvisationally comic New York Mets; not even the intimately larger-than-life Brooklyn Dodgersover a near-century's recurring disaster, unto the new century's shocking crossing to the Promised Land.
Maybe it has been the losing, the history, that created this intimate feeling. Maybe it has been the area, New England skepticism on parade again. No chamber of commerce yahoos allowed. Maybe it has been the fact that Fenway Park doesn't have a second deck . . . Whatever the case, the Red Sox never have been some special show. They simply have been... here...
They have always been a big deal, perhaps... but without ever being a big deal. A Boston thing.
Until 27 October 2004, with 20 minutes left in the calendar day, when Keith Foulke picked off Edgar Renteria's bouncebacker and threw to Doug Mientkiewicz. From the moment the ball left Foulke's hand to the moment Mientkiewicz clapped his mitt around the ball, as Joe Buck hollered with shameless abandon from pitcher to first baseman, the Red Sox became a big deal with being a big deal. And not merely amidst the New England winds and whisperings.
"I WISH I WERE GOING WITH HIM"
In light of current baseball-related events, a reader who isnt familiar with John Schulian might get the impression that the title of his new collection, Twilight of the Long-ball Gods: Dispatches from the Disappearing Heart of Baseball (University of Nebraska Press, $12.95). is a promise of a deeper delving into an already tired-out issue. Which is why its an absolute joy to turn back the cover and find that Mr. Schulian is obsessed not with the overgrown and overblown sluggers of the last ten or fifteen years, or with famous records, or with needles or magic rubbing creams or thank God Dixie cups full of suspicious urine, but instead with the plights of relatively obscure individuals whose passion for baseball is big league, even if their careers never were.
Schulians subjects arent no-names exclusively. He does find room among these pages, (comprised of articles selected from more than thirty years of his work for such publications as Chicago Sun-Times, Inside Sports, GQ and Sports Illustrated) to include rumination and reportage on the well-known (Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe, Babe Ruth) and the known (Bill Veeck, Steve Stone and Ken Brett, Frank Howard). But he prefers to introduce his readers to people and places that are outside of baseballs mainstream. In his introduction, Schulian writes that he was lucky to have found editors . . . who would allow me to indulge my passion for baseballs shadow world. We, too, are lucky that he found those editors. Otherwise we might never have the chance to read the collections title piece and learn about long-ball gods Steve Bilko, Moe Hill, Red Howell and Howitzer Howie Moss, all of whom were revered and respected for their minor league records, but none of whom were able to establish firm footing in the majors.
Some of Schulians people, like John Ruanea young right-handed pitcher with limited talent who pays $500 to attend the Wally Moon Baseball School in hopes that it will help him earn a pro contractare complete innocents. And some, like baseball drug outlaw Steve Howe, who Schulian finds pitching for the unaffiliated and thoroughly unorganized San Jose Bees while he awaits a chance to get back to the big leagues, are not even close. But all of them, like Schulian himself, and like the rest of us who one day had to stop playing the game, share the disease that renders one incapable of ever leaving the game alone.
Some of the best moments, in fact, are those when John Schulian writes about John Schulian. For instance, at the end of The Right-hander, the piece on young Ruanes trip to the Wally Moon Baseball School, Schulian concludes by writing, I wish I was going with him. That one line could be the thesis statement for the entire collection. Schulian implies throughout the piece that the odds Ruane will ever realize his dream of playing as a pro arent good ones, then openly wishes he was in the young mans position himself, proving that he has something not every baseball writer does: the capacity and experience not only to report, but to understand.
We might be witnessing the twilight of a few exponentially more famous long-ball gods at this very moment. Let me be the first to thank John Schulian for putting together a collection of 30-plus reasons why we shouldnt notice.
"PAY ME IN CASH, PAY ME IN PELTS, PAY ME NOT AT ALL."
"You see," wrote Jim Bouton, famously, to finish the original Ball Four, "you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time." Since a rear jacket blurb indicates that Bouton does know Bill Lee well enough, he should know as well that compared to Lee, perhaps, the grip the baseball has had on Bouton has been as a handshake to a vise. If Have Glove, Will Travel: Adventures of a Baseball Vagabond (with Richard Lally, Crown Publishers, $23.00) is evidence, Lee makes Boutonand just about everyone else who professes to the gripresemble a dilettante.
Allowing not even such a piddling trifle as an actual or alleged blackball from organized baseball thwart him, not that he has ever permitted convention (or anything else) do so, Lee has chased and played the game since, twenty-three years and probably counting. And the latest in a repertoire of upside down instructiveness carries the Spaceman around the beer leagues, around the exhibitions, around the world, and in and out of no few aborted crises, on behalf of nothing so shattering as a cheerful refusal to fight his way out of the vise.
Whether the years have callused Lee's hide otherwise may well depend upon how you translate between his lines. His familiar enough wit in places enough seems slightly unable to throw a complete cover upon the possibility that part of him, for all his itinerance since, has never forgotten actual or perceived slights, even if he assumes the last laugh. Nor does it obstruct the sense that, as much as you enjoy him and respect even an occasionally warped kind of individualism, Lee has never really stopped being his own worst enemy once in awhile... and he knows it.
Advisable though it isn't to say so in the company of Don Zimmer, Bill Lee is likeable enough a man that his being his own worst enemy or a confessed narcissist does not erode that likeability. Have Glove, Will Travel essentially affirms those who suspected through his previous writings (The Wrong Stuff, The Little Red (Sox) Book) that behind Bill Lee, the self-conscious rebel without a pause character, there probably lurked a boy whose vantage was that he loved the game too much to become a man, wrestling with a man who loves life too much to play the game. Take Lee on those terms and the only mystery is why anyone might have questioned, once his banishment from the Show was complete, that he would go no place on earthwhether his Vermont home, his San Francisco roots, his South American, European, or Asian sojournswhose itinerary or life support did not include a baseball game . . . that he could play.
"Hardball, softball, stickball, Wiffle ball, cricket, pay me in cash, pay me in pelts, pay me not at allit did not matter," he writes. "Performing in front of large crowds no longer appealed to me. After spending thirteen years in the major league limelight, I desired anonymity. If you owned a club of Nerfball-playing kangaroos with a home park situated somewhere just beyond the dark side of the moon and you needed someone to fill that last spot on your roster, I would catch the next space shuttle. My left hand, you see, felt incomplete without a baseball gripped between its fingers. I just wanted to stand on a mound again, even one made of plywood in the middle of an ice rink, doing what I do best."
The problem is that pitching is not quite what he does best. Telling tales tall, short, broad, and narrow is what he does best. It must be mad fun to watch Bill Lee in upper middle age going out and playing for love of the game, but there is the infallible sense as you turn each page that the fun of watching has only the purpose of entertaining you until the game is over and the real fun, in his retelling, begins. "It's Johnny Appleseed meets Hunter Thompson," says Bouton, but there are places enough where you suspect (with evidence or an educated enough guess) that it is really Johnny Appleseed meets Dizzy Dean. Or the Shaggy Dog.
This is not to say that Lee is pulling (or peeing) on your leg when he writes (and hilariously enough, considering the scenario) of fishing and bear escaping with an oddly calm Ferguson Jenkins ("Now I know how he could throw strikes over a plate the size of a quarter with the bases loaded"), or that he has a trap door with your name on it beneath your feet when he writes of his affection for Ted Williams, from whom he could not possibly have been more distinct by either field position or personality, and whom he began getting to know during a 1986 fantasy camp.
Lee purged himself of revenge after the San Francisco Giants and San Diego Padres cut him upon learning minor league affiliates had the audacity to sign him for trials. He pitched a winter or two in Venezuela, where among his other tormentors was a prime Expos prospect named Galarraga. He played for the Moncton Mets in the New Brunswick Senior League. He joined a USC-instigated traveling team for goodwill games (in 1988) against Soviet Union teams including the Russian national team, during which tour he and a teammate nearly provoked a skirmish with Soviet police, when not observing Soviet baseball players had problems---like bunting, hit-and-running, and defensive alignment.
Somewhere in there, he really did run for the Presidency on the Rhinoceros Party ticket. He really did manage the Winter Haven Super Sox of the ill-fated Senior Professional Baseball League. He really did play games in which Bobby Hull proved as adept (as a catcher) with runners bearing for home as he was with skates and stick, to say nothing of teaching the art of drinking cognac. And they needed it, considering Lee had to suggest to an exhibition club manager that might have been a fine idea to put former baseball players (such as Tony Oliva, Rico Carty, Ferguson Jenkins, and Willie Wilson, for openers) instead of former hockey players on his softball team.
And through the entire thing, you can't avoid the thought that if Lee has commissioned a family crest, it will brandish a baseball, a glove, a marijuana plant, and a throwing pie.
Searching for the unsoiled baseball game, and riding the concurrent accidents of circumstances, Lee has found as existential a life as can be assumed on a roiling island called earth, doing it with so little destruction and such unapologetic verve, even amidst his setbacks and sorrows, that by the time you close the covers of this book you no longer care whether the Show did or did not blackball him. In his own way Lee transcends and personifies the game beyond the formalities of the Show.
But you may still regret that he probably had to turn in the manuscript before his beloved Red Sox crossed to the Promised Land over the Yankee's scattered corpses. Negotiating Bill Lee's brain, from the grandest theft in Red Sox history to the final Cardinal out, watching a few of his previous theories go up and out like Damon's grand slam or Bellhorn's tolling, and a few new theories curling around his confrontation with the new creature on the transdimensional block, the world champion Red Sox, would have been fun at least as mad as the craziest of Red Sox pennant races. Assuming he even believes it happened.
It used to be that whenever I headed to northern Michiganeither with my pal Andy to his cabin on Lake Michigan, or with my Grandma to her rented shack in a town called LakeI would haul along a variety of books to waste my time, either on the beach or inside those musty castles if it were raining. I brought along yellowed classics purchased at the local paperback exchange (usually a quarter for a beat up Faulkner, Steinbeck, or one of the thick Russian mindbenders); old Mad Magazines; and some book about baseball. Of the latter, my favorite were the histories of the Detroit Tigers, which, admittedly, were few (though they increased in number when the Tigers won the 84 World Series).
This summer, Twins fans have a nice pair of afternoon wasters (and thats high praise, trust me). Jim Thielmans Cool of the Evening, the Story of the 1965 Minnesota Twins, and Swinging For the Fences: Black Baseball in Minnesota (edited by Steven R. Hoffbeck) are meant to wind up water soaked from a ride in a canoe, smelling like fresh-caught fish, or bent to hell and sun-warped from loafing on a beach.
Theres almost nothing better than kicking back and thumbing through Cool of the Evening while listening to the Twins on the radio, except, perhaps, making sure that you get Herb Carneal on the box, as opposed to the other two dimwits. Cool is a simple book, cobbled together from interviews and press reports, nothing to give you fits of anger or whet your appetite for gossip. Its all good news, even the guys that flounderreading this book helps one (especially a non-Minnesotan) see why Zoilo Versalles would have won the MVP award, despite his numbers. For the locals, its the kind of a book that I can see fitting into a warm cliché: a father handing his son or daughter this slim volume, just to give them a feel for what the game was like when he was kid: especially at Metropolitan Stadium.
Swinging For the Fences is an altogether different book. A collection of pieces from different writers about a section of the states black baseball (which is probably its weakest pointone writer would have made the book more consistent), it is the thing I wish Id read in high school, when I first had my old brown Subaru and could scour the countryside looking for evidence of the old baseball teams. You can see articles from the Minneapolis Tribune from when Willie Mays wandered the local diamonds as a minor leaguer, and marvel that the Winona Clippers once fielded a black man (and that they defeated a team called the St. Charles Suckers).
Between these two books, Minnesota baseball fans would be hard-pressed to find more entertaining reads about the noble sport in their backyards.
Living here in Minnesota, I get to see firsthand the creation of an enemy, that enemy being the Chicago White Sox. The Sox have always intrigued me, from their ill-fated 1919 team to the Go-Go Sox, to the guys who dominated in the early 90s but couldnt do anything with it. But their fans are even better: devout, paranoid, depressed, people who take their suffering in strideall of this so clearly articulated on White Sox Interactive, unquestionably the best fan-run website out there. Theres a chat room, columnists, interviews, music, you name it. A beautiful thing.