Magazine article Natural History

Baseball by the Books

Magazine article Natural History

Baseball by the Books

Article excerpt

REVIEW

This season's lineup offers some interesting reflections on the game.

Baseball has become a global game. Long a national passion in Japan and in some parts of the Caribbean and Latin America, it has more recently been adopted elsewhere in Asia as well as in Europe, particularly the Netherlands and Italy, and Australia. Some excellent books have been written about baseball in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Cuba. Now, Joseph A. Reaves, who once covered Asia for the Chicago Tribune, writes about the development of baseball in Korea, the Philippines, China, and Taiwan in Taking in a Game: A History of Baseball in Asia. After Americans introduced baseball to Japan in the 1870s, the Japanese transformed the game and became the dominant missionaries of baseball across Asia. "Little ball," as the Asian game is sometimes known, involves playing for one run at a time; it prizes discipline, conformism, hierarchy, control, sacrifice for the good of the group, harmony, respect for management, and a reluctance to criticize. America's "big ball," of course, favors personal achievement, innovation, creativity, and individualism.

More than 200 books about our national pastime appear each year. Many are fluff-trivia, statistics and records, profiles of particular teams. But there is also some fine scholarship, much of it done by historians. Charles C. Alexander's Breaking the Slump, for example, describes pro ball during the hard times of the Great Depression. Back then, baseball games were played during the day and, because of few pitching changes, were quick (about one and three-quarter hours). Only sixteen major-league teams existed (today there are thirty), and all were in cities on or east of the Mississippi River.

During the 1930s, major-league organizations were just beginning to build minor-league farm systems as a source of big-league talent. Conditioning and sports medicine were in their infancy, with the treatment of injuries seldom going beyond massage or Mercurochrome-although some physicians, curiously, prescribed the removal of teeth or tonsils as a cure for sore throwing arms. Baseball stadiums were called parks or fields. Built with private capital, Wrigley Field, Comiskey Park, Ebbets Field, and Shibe Park bore the names of the men who financed their construction. Sadly, at the very time that the United States was preparing to fight a war against totalitarian regimes and their doctrines of racial supremacy, our national game at the highest level was reserved for whites only.

The postwar years are taken up in Late Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball, 1945-1972, the third volume in a series of anthologies of news articles, private letters, legal decisions, and league communications that have been compiled by baseball historian Dean A. Sullivan. Topics include everything from Jackie Robinson's assault on the color bar to the effects of television on fan attendance and the labor unrest in baseball during the 1970s.

Safe by a Mile is the story of Charlie Metro, a colorful minor- and majorleague player, coach, manager, and scout whose career spanned the 1940s through the 1980s. This excellent oral history was conceived by historian Thomas L. Altherr (who, in my opinion, takes too little credit for his role in the book). Among Metro's many coaching assignments was the Carolina League's Durham Bulls (FYI, he makes clear that he never allowed the clubhouse hanky-panky portrayed in the popular movie Bull Durham). I was intrigued with Metro's spring training experiences at the Detroit Tigers complex known as Tiger Town, because I was a minor-league player there at about the same time. …

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