If you are a baseball fan, your odds of enjoying this book are even better than those of Ichiro getting on base before a game ends. "Great Baseball...
“Sports Illustrated: Great Baseball Writing”
edited by Rob Fleder, introduction by Michael Lewis
Sports Illustrated Books,
560 pp., $25.95
If you are a baseball fan, your odds of enjoying this book are even better than those of Ichiro getting on base before a game ends.
“Great Baseball Writing” has 52 articles from the first 50 years of Sports Illustrated, the most literate and successful sports magazine in history. The culinary equivalent would be stepping up to a 100-foot smorgasbord at a good restaurant — there are going to be a lot of things you like.
But just like dishes, some of these pieces are disappointing. Give the head chef credit, though — there is good variety. Don’t like the pickled herring? Try the crab. Or the steak.
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There are profiles; opinion pieces; and some staples of baseball journalism, such as George Plimpton’s 1961 piece about pitching to all-stars and Jimmy Breslin’s “The Worst Baseball Team Ever” (the 1962 Mets).
There also are articles ranging from Roy Blount Jr.’s “12 Reasons Why the Triple is the Most Exciting 12 Seconds in Sports,” to William Nack’s “Lost in History,” about the Philadelphia A’s and why from 1929 to 1931 they — not the Yankees — were the best team in baseball. Steve Rushin weighs in with a column about how baseball is more enjoyable on the radio than on television.
Because the book is a collection of pieces written over the past 50 years, there aren’t any revisions based on fresh evidence. Rick Reilly’s 1998 piece on Mark McGwire’s successful assault of Roger Maris’ home-run record is a big wet kiss, because there wasn’t evidence at the time that steroids were part of the McGwire’s prescription for success. Still, the piece conveys the excitement that gripped the country during the chase for Maris’ record.
Reilly’s 1996 piece on Marge Schott, the cheapskate dingbat who owned the Cincinnati Reds and embarrassed baseball with her insensitivity and flapping tongue, is a gem. One of the best lines: “Sending Schott to sensitivity training is like sending a pickpocket to a Rolex convention.”
The book would have benefited from postscripts or editor notes updating the careers of athletes written about decades earlier. The 1965 article “You Can Take the Boy Out of the Country” about pitcher Dean Chance is interesting, but the casual fan is left wondering, “What became of Chance?” (Answer: He pitched 11 years, finishing with Detroit in 1971, and had a 128-115 record.)
Some of the pieces fall short.
A 1960 article on team owner Bill Veeck doesn’t do justice to one of the great baseball innovators. An essay by poet Robert Frost on the opening day of baseball is a waste of space — except for the line, “I never feel more at home in America than at a ball game, be it in a park or a sandlot.”
The 1979 first-person story by Jonathan Schwartz, a Red Sox fan who had a New York radio show, about his agony during the classic 1978 playoff game between the Yankees and Red Sox, smacks of the Eastern elitism that used to plague the magazine. The piece contains the line, “And what, after all, can be seriously expected of a major professional league (NHL) that has a hockey team in Vancouver?”
But for every lemon in this book, there are five treats.
Tom Verducci’s 1999 piece “The Left Arm of God,” about Sandy Koufax, is a compelling profile of the great left-hander who graces the book’s cover. Verducci scores again with his 2002 article “Totally Juiced,” s one of the groundbreaking articles about how rampant steroid use had become in baseball.
Still-giddy Red Sox fans can rejoice — Verducci’s “At the End of the Curse, a Blessing” about the 2004 World Series triumph is included.
Two selections have special appeal to Seattle readers.
Jim Bouton’s “Son of Ball Four,” written in 1979, is about his comeback as a knuckleballer in the Atlanta Braves organization. Much of Bouton’s classic book “Ball Four” was about his 1969 season with the Seattle Pilots.
“Me and Hutch,” by Jim Brosnan, is a 1960 piece by and about the pitcher-turned-author, and how he dealt with Seattle native and icon Fred Hutchinson, who took over managing the Cincinnati Reds in midseason in 1959. “The depth of his frown is in direct proportion to the length of his losing streak,” Brosnan writes.
Overall, “Greatest Baseball Writing” is an anthology that deserves a place this summer next to the TV remote-control dial of baseball fans.
Craig Smith is a veteran sportswriter who writes the “Sideline Smitty” column for the Sports section of The Seattle Times.