My Life in Baseball: The True Record
Matty: An American Hero, Christy Mathewson and the New York Giants
Hitter: The Life and Turmoils of Ted Williams
‘I Ain’t An Athlete, Lady…’: My Well-Rounded Life and Times
Don’t Look Back: Satchel Paige in the Shadows of Baseball
The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg
The Meaning of Nolan Ryan
In “Ode to the West Wind,” Shelley wrote one of our culture’s happiest lines: “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” Baseball fans have always lived by this maxim, as winter’s talk (still called “the hot stove league” to honor older places of public conversation) yielded to spring training and the start of another season. But not this year. While owners and players, tycoons all, continue their pointless and destructive strike, fans are reduced to writing and remembering. In choosing baseball’s most ancient and distinctive genre—the sports biography—as my subject for this review, I can at least honor the continuity and change that fans once viewed as inviolable for the game itself, the guarantee of our fealty.
In formulating his optimistic maxim, Shelley called the west wind of autumn “the trumpet of a prophecy.” Several of the biographies under review issue their own jeremiads without any overt intent. Their statements about the continuity of baseball, particularly the annual ritual of the World Series (which neither distant war nor immediate earthquake could ever interrupt), ring especially hollow after the rupture of 1994, when baseball’s owners canceled both the season’s end and the subsequent World Series. In his biography of Christy Mathewson, baseball’s first public hero, Ray Robinson discussed the refusal of the 1904 Giants to meet the Red Sox in a World Series (only one had been played before, in 1903, so the Giants were scarcely violating an established tradition). The Giant’s owner, John Brush, and manager, John McGraw, hated the “upstart” American League—just formed in 1901, while their own National League dated to 1876—and didn’t wish to dignify the new league’s existence with such a contest.
Thus, the World Series of 1904 was never played. It was the last time in the game’s modern history that an owner of a pennant-winning club could unilaterally kill off the World Series. It wouldn’t happen again. Thereafter, the Series was played every year on schedule, becoming the ultimate theatrical moment of every baseball season. No autocrat like Brush, no despot like McGraw would be able to do a thing about it.
Even the clichés of conventional biographical puffery, the passages either read in derision or skipped in boredom, have poignancy in this altered context, as in this bromide from John Kruk of the Philadelphia Phillies, a key player in the last World Series of 1993:
Baseball is a game. Win or lose, you play again the next day. If you lose the last game of the World Series [as the Phillies did] you can play again next year. It’s not the end of the world.
I am a paleontologist by trade, a student of life’s uninterrupted 3.5 billion year history on earth. All species die, and new forms emerge; but continuity has and must be maintained, or else we would not be here today—for if all life had ever been exterminated, what odds …