May 22, 2009
Since 1962, many of America’s best non-fiction writers have
written at least once about baseball in books and long magazine articles. Roger Angell of The New Yorker, Roger Kahn, formerly of the NY Herald Tribune and Sports Illustrated, began writing about the game in a form we still call The New Journalism, but back then, it was still new. Non-fiction writers allowed themselves to be writers, not just chroniclers. They explored their thoughts and feelings instead of trying to hide them. They used storytelling and fiction writing devices to tell true stories.
Baseball in particular lends itself to The New Journalism. Everything that happens reminds the writer of something else, his father, growing up, his first ballgame with his father, his earliest heroes, and the loss of childhood and childhood dreams and heroes. It reminds you of stories you heard about players you were too young to see for yourselves, and to share those stories with older people who did see those players, and children who will never see the players you saw as a child. And the game leaves you plenty of time for storytelling. Baseball’s oral tradition, handed down from father to son and daughter, is an essential part of the game itself, and the shared memory of American civilization.
Who doesn’t know the name Babe Ruth, whose prime years as a pitcher came before 1920, and mythic prime years as a hitter came before 1935? Who has never heard the name Ty Cobb, or Brooklyn Dodgers, or Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, or New York Yankees? In a different section of the country, I would add the names Ted Williams and the Red Sox.
Of course, there are many people, who don’t know these names, or feel any resonance when you repeat them. Many English people never heard of Shakespeare or Milton, I suppose.
It takes a real, professional writer to write about baseball without sentimentality, while exploring all the genuine sentiment that is part of the game. In addition to Angell and Kahn, who are both in their 80s, there is political commentator George Will (Working Men), Lawrence Ritter (The Glory of their Times), historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Donald Honig (Baseball when the Grass was Real), poet Joel Oppenheimer (The Wrong Season), and former player Jim Bouton (Ball Four). These are not baseball history and literature; they’re American history and literature.
If you don’t know the story of Jackie Robinson’s signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers, or his first two seasons of racial insults and threats on his life, you’re missing one of the most heroic stories in American history, not black history or baseball history. The threats and race hatred Hank Aaron faced the year it became clear he would break Babe Ruth’s record for career home runs, or the sad stories of great Negro League stars, who never played in the Majors because they were too old when the color barrier finally came down, are American history we can all be ashamed of.
If I’ve convinced you to try one book of baseball non-fiction, it would be anything by Roger Angell or The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn. They invented and set the standard for The New Baseball Journalism.