Baseball: Joys and Lamentations

My Life As A Fan

by Wilfrid Sheed
Simon and Schuster, 221 pp., $20.00

The Era, 1947–1957: When the Yankees, the Giants, and the Dodgers Ruled the World

by Roger Kahn
Ticknor and Fields, 372 pp., $22.95

The Gospel According to Casey: Casey Stengel’s Inimitable, Instructional, Historical Baseball Book

by Ira Berkow, by Jim Kaplan
St.Martin’s, 172 pp., $12.95 (paper)

O Holy Cow! The Selected Verse of Phil Rizzuto

edited by Tom Peyer, edited by Hart Seely
Ecco Press, 107 pp., $8.95 (paper)

Change is neutral as a general phenomenon, and can only be assessed case by case. We sit in our unsatisfactory present, surrounded by two mythologies that exalt their respective and conflicting ends—better futures by the fancy of progress, and rosier pasts by the fable of golden good old days. Sports fans are particularly subject to the dangers of nostalgia and a falsely glorified past. Young children deify Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, or even Reggie Jackson (who flourished at the dawn of my middle age)—none of whom they have ever seen in play. But nostalgia is surely silliest in older fans who should be able to grant some strength to the former contestant in a battle between eyewitness testimony and clouds of later memory. (I should mention that “older” has a definite meaning in this particular ballpark. Rooting is generational, and you enter the category of older when you first take your child to a game.) We simply have to be tough in the face of such temptation to moon about better pasts. I confess that I am about to submit to this enticement in choosing to focus this year’s review of baseball literature on five books exalting the prime joy of my own youth—New York baseball in the late 1940s and 1950s. I must therefore begin with an apologia.

Consider the twin dangers of arguments about the good old days. First of all, we need only listen to Kindertotenlieder, Mahler’s searing songs on the death of children, or place a call to Japan by pushing a few buttons, to remind ourselves about unambiguous improvements in the quality of our present lives. Second, I see no sense in fighting to retain old pleasures that have become truly inconsistent with modern life. We may (and should) lament the deaths of friends and lovers, but we cannot hope to retain perpetual youthfulness and must accept inevitability with grace—a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up.

To choose an example involving both dangers, I see no point in decrying baseball’s current structure of high salaries, though it has spawned a host of dire consequences endlessly rehearsed in the copious literature of baseball lamentation—including the complacency and self-indulgence of some stars, and the rupture of any loyalty between player and town, as teams become holding operations for the passage of mobile and monied players who spend a year or two and then move on. (Yes, the old days were marvelous, when DiMaggio defined the Yankees for life, Williams belonged to Boston and the Red Sox, and Musial was forever a Cardinal. But remember that only a few stars used this system to their advantage, and that most players were peons performing for peanuts, prevented by the infamous reserve clause from negotiating their own contracts, and therefore held as vassals to their owners. And I need hardly remind anyone that black men couldn’t …

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