In the My Favorite Book series, writers select the baseball book that most changed their lives.
The subgenres within baseball literature have been fairly static for generations. You have your biographies, your celebrations of major events such as World Series or landmark anniversaries, your anthologies compacting the best columns or excerpts from larger works. Over the last few years, there has been an explosion of Moneyball-type titles about the business of the game using Sabermetrics instead of the time-honored (and seemingly outmoded) methods of relying on scouts. Generally speaking: same book, different day.
I first read Mark Harris’s classic baseball novel Bang the Drum Slowly in a mass-market paperback edition, packaged for $2.95 as Henry Wiggen’s Books with two other Harris works, The Southpaw and A Ticket for a Seamstitch. This was in the late 1970s, when the team I have followed for most of my life, the St. Louis Cardinals, was having a particularly bad season.
When I was growing up, my grandmother used to tell me my grandfather did the work of three men running a farm. I always respected that, and I understand it more now as a freelance writer and editor. Being self-employed is tough, though my grandfather seemingly always excelled at it. Born to a Depression-era farm family, he became the man of the house when his father died a few days before his fourth birthday in 1936. I remember hearing stories about how my grandfather installed an electric milker when he was nine to save time before school.
I know, I know . . . you should always read the book first. Everyone knows that movies based on books often disappoint the readers who loved those same books. Right? Or at the very least the movies distort their book-based stories. But sometimes the movies cannot be avoided first.
My early baseball education came mainly from Topps’ baseball cards and Random House’s “Big League Library” series (Jim Brosnan’s Great Baseball Pitchers, George Vecsey’s Baseball’s Most Valuable Players, and a dozen others). The late 1960s and early 1970s was a great time for young baseball readers, and my school libraries had a fair sampling of books on such heroes as Jackie Robinson, Babe Ruth, and Willie Mays. I read all I could find.
Seasons Past is a cult book. Many voracious consumers of baseball literature don’t even know of it, and even among them, fewer have read it. Lawrence Ritter, though, had included it in his 50-Book Essential Baseball Library with good reason.
Mine was a roundabout discovery.
When I reflexively chose the Chip Hilton baseball series written by Clair Bee as the book(s) that most influenced my love of baseball, I wasn’t sure why, I just knew viscerally it was right. As I tried to transport myself back in time, the reasons started to feel familiar. I now have nothing in common in a practical sense with the kid I was at nine years old, but I figured once a dreamer, always a dreamer. At least that might be a starting point, a mutual frame of reference. I needed to ask that nine-year-old pudgy kid what made Chip Hilton so memorable.
When I was 10 years old, my grandmother took me to see The Babe Ruth Story, a film starring William Bendix as the Babe. The film was a masterpiece of biopic nonsense which even kids could spot as totally bogus, beginning with the notion that Bendix could throw and hit a baseball with any resemblance to the man he portrayed. Then there was the scene in a bar in which the Babe orders milk, which caused thunderous hoots and guffaws at the Park Hill Theatre in Yonkers, New York, where I saw the film.
Reading this nostalgic book following its 1972 release, I was jealous of its author, Roger Kahn. Why? Because I wish I could have been in his boots writing about those pennant-winning years of the early 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers as he had done for the New York Herald Tribune, then later getting the once-in-a-lifetime chance to interview a few of the same Dodgers stars in the early 1970s, while they were still alive, long after their playing days had ended. Kahn then put these two-part experiences in book form: The Boys of Summer. Lucky guy.