The Twins’ Justin Morneau fairly dominated all-star weekend, first winning the Home Run Derby (even if Josh Hamilton broke the record for most dingers in a single round), and then, in the bottom of the 15th inning of the All-Star Game, he tagged up on a sacrifice fly to right and hustled his buns to score the winning run, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief because they could finally go to bed.
The duration of the game was four hours, and fifty minutes. The two main developments as the innings grew later were that the New York fans’ resentment against the Red Sox players lessened, and it became increasingly apparent that Joe Buck is a better salesman than play-by-play announcer. ("This National League line-up is brought to you by Taco Bell…Think outside the bun…Up first…")
If you include the time spent on announcing the All-Stars, the starting line-ups, the hall-of-famers, and the national anthem, the broadcast lasted well over six hours. I thought to myself, ‘I could’ve read a book.’
Though I suppose that’s not so different from normal. And it’s not necessarily an impulse I act on as often as I might suggest. But in this specific case, it got me thinking about some of the great novels that have been written about baseball.
I’m pretty sure, actually, that my initial interest in reading may have been helped along by Mark Harris’ quartet of baseball books, narrated by Henry Wiggins, pitcher for the fictional New York Mammoths: Bang the Drum Slowly, The Southpaw, A Ticket for a Seamstitch, and It Looked Like For Ever. I was a fairly prolific baseball card collector, and of course regarded Kirby Puckett and Kent Hrbek as heroes. Harris’ novels were the first glimpses I had into the sort of dirty underside of baseball (pre-steroids, probably). His characters are always stuck in cramped trains or seedy hotel rooms, if I remember correctly. Not surprisingly, I was a lousy ballplayer, and it wasn’t long before I realized that I’d have an easier time accessing the game through prose than through my (lack of) muscles.
This year, there are a few notable baseball books that have been spawned right here in Minnesota.
First off, you’ve got Peter Schilling’s The End of Baseball (came out in April), in which a team that ‘almost was’ becomes real. Set in 1944, the wily promoter Bill Veeck hustles his way into owning the Philadelphia Athletics, and in hopes of bringing home the pennant he gets rid of all the team’s white players and recruits the stars of the Negro League. The cast of characters includes Walter Winchell, J. Edgar Hoover, Roy Campenella, and Satchell Paige. From the Baltimore Sun: "To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, some baseball novels see things as they are and ask why; Peter Schilling Jr.’s brilliantly conceived The End of Baseball sees things that weren’t and imagines what could have been. The best baseball novel so far this century."
Then, in a couple months, you can check out hometown boy Bill Meissner’s Spirits in the Grass. From the flap: "In Spirits in the Grass we meet Luke Tanner, a thirty-something baseball player helping to build a new baseball field in his beloved hometown of Clearwater, Wisconsin. Luke looks forward to trying out for the local amateur team as soon as possible. His chance discovery of a small bone fragment on the field sets in motion a series of events and discoveries that will involve his neighbors, local politicians, and the nearby Native American reservation." Meissner’s earlier collection, Hitting into the Wind can tide you over until then.
Of course there’s Bernard Malamud’s The Natural (that link goes to a 1952 review of the book), about the prodigious Roy Hobbs whose career is sidetracked first by a crazed fan, and then by disease. I heard a story that when Malamud saw the film version – starring Robert Redford – for the first time, he sat in the theater as the credits rolled, and cried because they’d ruined his book. If you read it, you’ll understand why. (Hobbs is also used as an entity in some Peanuts strips.)
Then there’s Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel, concerning the Patriot League’s Ruppert Mundys – the only homeless big-league ball team in American history. The players include Gil Gamesh, "the only pitcher who ever literally tried to kill the umpire," and John Baal, the Babe Ruth of the Big House, who never hit a home run while sober.
Those are the ones that ring my bells. Or something. Here is a more comprehensive list that’s worth checking out. And as always, feel free to add your own favorites below.
Just for good measure: Skol.