Reading Baseball: The Good Old Stuff

Mitch Albom was once one of the best baseball writers in the country. (via Vincent Wagner)

I wasn’t very old – probably still in single digits – when I conceded, sadly, that I wasn’t going to grow up to be the second baseman for my Cubs. All right then, I told my parents, I’ll be the baseball writer who covers the team for a newspaper.

Next birthday, they bought me a book they’d somehow found without the aid of Amazon: How to Cover, Write and Edit Sports. To give you an idea of how current this volume is, the chapter on “Covering Baseball” notes that the game’s popularity “permits big league club owners to pay key players salaries which often exceed $25,000.” I still have the book (for sentimental rather than instructional purpose).

My newspaper days, as it turned out, never did include being a baseball writer, but I’ve edited them, recruited them, hired them, appreciated them. And I read them, all my life, because the best baseball writing is a joy. In the right hands, baseball, in its rhythms and its pace and its setting, is an ideal canvas for one who can see its possibilities and paint them in words.

Now, let’s narrow it down. Conventions and priorities change. What was colorful prose in baseball’s early days is horse-and-buggy language now (“Mr. Comiskey’s white stockinged young men gave the Brewers a hard fight,” read a Chicago Tribune report in 1900). Night baseball with morning paper deadlines severely limited what the best newspaper writer could do. Pre-Ball Four, players’ off-field deportment was mostly off-limits. Pre-sabermetrics, assessments of player performance were rudimentary, and analysis of team strategy was seat of the pants.

Let me be clear: Today’s baseball writing, bolstered by sophisticated statistics and accessible technological tools (spin rate! launch angles!) allows us to know far more about the hows and the whys of baseball than could be imagined just a few years ago. On leading sites such as this one, and increasingly in the print and broadcast media, players, game strategy and front office performance get rigorous, empirical examination.

Those caveats aside, I wish to remind you of (introduce you to?) the kind of great baseball writing that gives me pleasure in these dreary no-baseball days as I pull anthologies and biographies and reminiscences off my shelves and reread favorites. I’m a sucker for the romance of the game. These sometimes-yellowing pages take me to a soothing alternative to those noisy back-and-forth sports on TV.

Mute the hockey game and enjoy the good old stuff:

Thomas Boswell, longtime Washington Post columnist, on a famously reclusive Hall of Famer:

In a parking lot beside RFK Stadium this week, two dozen middle-aged men, most of them dressed like Connecticut Avenue lawyers, chased one senior citizen as he left the Cracker Jack Old-Timers Classic. Pens and autograph pads in hand, the adults pursued the silver-haired sixty-eight year old man, just as they probably lapped at this heels during his days of legend from 1936 until 1951 when he was the Yankee Clipper and, some claim, the greatest player in baseball history.

“Joe, Joe,” cried one fellow, “we played a round of golf together five years ago in Jersey.” The hero stopped to sign. Finally, he was at ease with age and this endless foolishness called fame. At last, it was almost a pleasure to be Joe DiMaggio.

Red Smith, to my mind the all-time best, with a classic deadline piece on the scene of the Bobby Thomson home run game, for the New York Herald Tribune:

Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.

Down on the green and white and the earth-brown geometry of the playing field, a drunk tries to break through the ranks of ushers marshaled along the foul lines to keep profane feet off the diamond. The ushers thrust him back and he lunges at them, struggling in the clutch of two or three men. He breaks free, and four or five tackle him. He shakes them off, bursts through the line, runs into a special park cop, who brings him down with a flying tackle.

Here comes a whole platoon of ushers. They lift the man and haul him, twisting and kicking back across the first-base line. Again he breaks loose and crashes the line. He is through. He is away, weaving out toward center field, where cheering thousands are jammed beneath the windows of the Giants’ clubhouse.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

At heart, our man is a Giant, too. He never gave up.

From center field comes burst upon burst of cheering, pennants are waving, uplifted fists are brandished, hats are flying. Again and again the dark clubhouse windows blaze with the light of photographers’ flash bulbs. Here comes that same drunk out of the mob, back across the green turf to the infield. Coattails flying, he runs the bases, slides into third. Nobody bothers him now.

And the story remains to be told, the story of how the Giants won the 1951 pennant in the National League. The tale of their barreling run through August and September and into October….

Jane Leavy, author and former Washington Post sports writer, on Mickey Mantle, in The Last Boy:

He took my hand and placed it on the most famous knee in baseball history. It felt like jelly. “There’s a ball rolling around in it, a calcium deposit. When it gets caught….” He shrugged. “I’ve got no cartilage. So when I swing….”

He moved his hand through an imaginary plane. “They get stiff when it’s cold and damp, stiff and sore. It’s like a real dull toothache. That’s the way it is all the time when I play golf.”

“When was the last time they didn’t hurt?” I asked.

“When I was eighteen.”

Roel Torres on baseball and the immigrant experience. This appeared in The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2009 (at that time in book form; these days, the Annual is online).

How do you learn to love baseball? How does it become an important part of your daily routine? How do you inject it into your bloodstream, get it racing through your veins, pumping life into your exhausted body when the humid summer days slow everything down to a crawl and the act of finding a morning box score is like unlocking the mysteries of a lost civilization? How does that happen?

… The connection. That’s how baseball works. A father teaches his son to root for his favorite team, the local nine, instructing him to cheer them on to victory and to follow their winding road to the World Series. A father buys his son his first glove and teaches him how to oil it down and how to wrap a baseball in the pocket and to break it in so that he can snatch line drives with ease. A father takes his son to his first major league ballgame, buys him a hot dog and coke and reminds him to be alert to any souvenir foul balls that might head in their direction. It’s the American game, passed down from fathers to sons, which is great. Unless you’re not an American. And it’s a good system. Unless you don’t have a father. Then, maybe it’s not so great. Then, maybe it’s not such a good system. In that case – maybe you’re on your own.

This is my story… I grew up in the Philippines in the 1970s. It was a Third World country ….

Westbrook Pegler, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who started as a sports writer, on a three-homer World Series game for Babe Ruth in 1928:

That pale and trembling invalid, Mr. Babe Ruth, achieved something startling in the way of a convalescence out in the open air and summery sunglow this afternoon.

Three times he laid his crutch in the way and knocked the baseball out of the St. Louis ball park and finally, in the last half of the ninth inning, shook his groaning chassis into a wild, goose-legged run to the rail of the temporary seats in left field, where he leaned over and plucked a foul ball out from the feathers on a lady customer’s millinery for the final putout of the World Series of 1928.

Mark Kram was among the stable of fine writers Sports Illustrated assembled in its early days. This, from 1973, is from a collection assembled by his son, writer Mark Kram Jr.

In the language of jazz, the word “gig” is an evening of work, sometimes sour, sometimes sweet. Take the gig as it comes, for who knows what the next will be. It means bread and butter first, but a whole lot of things have always seemed to ride with the word: drifting blue light, the bouquet from leftover drinks, spells of odd dialogue, and most of all a sense of pain and limbo. For more than anything the word means black, down-and-out black, leavin’-home black, what-ya-gonna-do-when-ya-git-there black, tired-of-choppin’-cotton-gonna-find-me-a-place-in-de-shade black.

Big shade fell coolly only on a few. It never got to James Thomas Bell, or Cool Papa Bell as he was known in Negro baseball, that lost caravan that followed the sun. Other blacks, some of them musicians who worked jazz up from the South, would feel the touch of fame or once in a while have thought that their names meant something to people outside their own. But if you were black and played baseball, well, look for your name only in the lineup before each game, or else you might not see it there if you kept on leanin’ and dreamin’.

Black baseball was a stone-hard gig. Unlike jazz, it had no white intellectuals to hymn it, no slumming aristocracy to taste it. It was three games a day, sometimes in three different towns miles apart. It was the heat and fumes and bounces from buses that moved your stomach up to your throat, and it was greasy meals at flypapered diners at 3:00 a.m. and uniforms that were seldom off your back. “We slept with ‘em on sometimes,” says Papa, “but there was never ‘nough sleep. We got so we could sleep standin’ up or catch a nod in the dugout.”

Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press on the late and beloved Tigers radio announcer.

Year after year, winter after winter, the voice stirs from under the snow. It heats up, it melts free, it crosses your lawn and taps the frost from your window. “Time to wake up,” it seems to say. “It’s spring. I’m back.”

You yawn. You smile. It is a voice you trust, an easy pitch, not too shrill, not too deep, a sprinkle of Southern accent – genteel, that’s probably a good word, a voice that would sing you a lullaby or tell you bedtime stories. It asks for nothing, this voice. It never scolds. It never whines. It wants only to live inside your transistor radio, to narrate from your car speakers as you drive on a summer night. It is the human lyric of the double play and the single up the middle. It is the call of a rookie with a smoking fastball, It is the game the way the game would sound if only the game could talk. It is the voice of baseball.

It belongs to Ernie Harwell.

“He is the best,” people say, as if stating a law of nature. And he is still here, behind the mike in that little booth at Tiger Stadium. Amid all the turmoil, all the changes, all the money and lawyers and lockouts and strikes, Ernie’s voice remains as much real baseball as green grass and orange dirt.

References and Resources

  • Thomas Boswell, The Heart of the Order, 1989.
  • Harry E. Heath Jr. and Lou Gelfand, How to Cover Write And Edit Sports, 1951.
  • Jane Leavy, The Last Boy, 2010.
  • Arch Ward, editor, The Greatest Sports Stories from the Chicago Tribune, 1953.
  • The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2009.
  • David Halberstam, editor, The Best American Sports Writing of the Century, 1999.
  • Mitch Albom, Live Albom II, 1990.
  • Mark Kram, Great Men Die Twice, 2015.

Joe Distelheim is a retired newspaper editor whose career included stints as sports editor of The Charlotte Observer and Detroit Free Press. He co-authored Cubs: From Tinker to Banks to Sandberg to Today.
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5 years ago

Very nice! Nothing better in the winter than curling up with good baseball writing. Roger Angell is always first in my mind though he wouldn’t fit here because he wasn’t a beat writer.

5 years ago

I read Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer last winter. I don’t know how you could read Kahn’s prose without falling in love with virtually every player on that team.

I also remember Bill Bryson quoting a section of his dad’s beat report on Mazeroski’s 1960 WS homer. Another of the best bits of baseball writing I’ve ever read.

Dennis Bedard
5 years ago

Stan Hochman. Philadelphia Daily News. Covered the Phillies through thick and (mostly) thin. And let’s not forget David Halberstam, a former NY Times political write who cut his teeth covering the Vietnam War and then went on to do even better by writing books about the 1949 and 1964 seasons. Probably the two best baseball books I have ever read.

5 years ago

As soon as I finished “Moneyball”, I immediately wanted to read the next fourteen unwritten sequels!

5 years ago

Pat Jordan’s “A False Spring” will make you cry; his collection of essays “Suitors of Spring” will enlighten, amuse and emotionally affect you. Arnold Hano’s 1954 “A Day in the Bleachers” may STILL be the best account of a single game, written by someone who was NOT “in the press box”, ever written…. and…Red Smith was so good, a group of his Obituaries were collected & published as a book.