By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, April 5, 2009
THE FIFTH SEASON
Tales of My Life in Baseball
By Donald Honig
Ivan R. Dee. 287 pp. $26.95
Here's an amiable if almost entirely inconsequential book with which to mark the start of the new baseball season. For about four decades Donald Honig has been grinding out worshipful books about the game: "Baseball When the Grass Was Real," "The October Heroes," "The Image of Their Greatness" et cetera. Now in his late 70s, Honig turns the spotlight on himself, telling the story of a boy who caught "the baseball fever," didn't quite have the skill to make it as a player but found a way to spend what seems to have been a happy life on the game's fringes.
The name of Roger Angell never crops up in "The Fifth Season," but that best of all post-World War II baseball writers hovers above it like Michelangelo's hand of God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Just as God gives life to Adam in the immortal painting, so has Angell given life to a whole generation of baseball writers, many of whom have imitated his poetic feel for the game's rhythms and legends but none of whom has come close to reaching his heights. Like all the rest, Honig takes repeated stabs in Angell's direction, but the best that can be said for them is that they are from the heart.
Honig's forte, in any event, is not writing but interviewing. In the 1960s, after writing a number of forgettable novels, he met Lawrence W. Ritter, who had had the remarkable prescience and patience to track down many of the surviving players from early 20th-century baseball and had made the interviews into what may well be the best baseball book ever, "The Glory of Their Times" (1966). Honig says that he urged Ritter to interview players from other eras, but Ritter suggested that Honig undertake the project himself. This he did, first with "Baseball When the Grass Was Real" (1975) and then with something on the order of a book a year ever since, making him the undisputed Joyce Carol Oates of baseball writers.
Much of "The Fifth Season" is taken up with Honig's accounts of how these interviews came to pass or in a few cases, i.e. Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, did not. "Recounting the careers of former big-league players becomes a synergistic exercise," he writes, "the writer requiring the stories for his book and the player needing the book for his legacy." Or, as he writes about one of these players, in an especially egregious example of faux Angellism, Pete Reiser "occupies nostalgia-sweet corners in the memories of those able to make the long regression to other days, and with our overflowing cups of memory we are a diminishing breed."
Reiser, a center fielder, joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1940 at the age of 21. The next season he won the National League batting championship with an average of .343. Many thought he could be one of the greats, but he was incapable of playing with anything except total abandon and as a consequence had a penchant for running into walls, other players and anything else in his way. By 1949 he was gone from Brooklyn, and by 1952 he was out of the game. But when Honig was a boy, attending games at Ebbetts Field or listening to them on the radio, Reiser was in his prime and was Honig's "scintillating young idol." Even today, along with the great Cleveland pitcher Bob Feller, he remains one of Honig's "two boyhood champions . . . a short-fused missile ready to launch pell-mell in any direction, relentless to the point of recklessness, fixed on the single thing."
Yes, the prose is pretty much indigestible, but the sentiment is heartfelt and rather touching. What Honig has to say about Reiser is certainly a lot more palatable than his extended paean to DiMaggio, whom he encountered on the field before an old-timers' game at Shea Stadium in New York and whose regal presence reduced him to blithering incoherence. Seeing (or reading about) a grown man fawning before another is not pretty. Boyhood hero-worship has its place, and no doubt all of us have fallen victim to it, but in an adult it merely seems, well, childish.
Honig is much more appealing when he writes about himself as a boy, when he and his friends were playing ball in Queens and suffering, or enjoying, the manifestations of baseball fever: "the memorization of endless statistics (past and present), friendships ruptured on the basis of partisanship, offense taken at the demeaning of a favorite player, and digestive tracts impaired by the loss of a close game." Having come to those sensations about a decade after Honig did, I remember them well and find myself wondering whether many of today's boys, in a far more complex and crowded world, have the chance to experience them. If they do not, as probably is the case, the loss is theirs.
Honig himself must have been a better than average player, because when he was 16 years old, the Boston Red Sox signed him to a minor-league contract and sent him to Savannah to test him against other young prospects. He rode down on the train with a boy named Frank Malzone, who made it all the way to Boston and had a solid career there from 1955 to 1965. As for Honig, he was gone in the first cut, but he had an eye-opening encounter with a belle of Savannah, and he knows, now, that it was one of the best times of his life.
His account of this brief time is also the best part of "The Fifth Season," which takes its title from his mawkish belief that baseball is our fifth season, "a commanding and versatile fifth," a "timeless time" that -- here he goes again -- "arches over the full calendar, evoking and embracing hope and optimism, action and excitement, fantasy and reality, memory and reminiscence." Oh well. It's his book and he can write it any way he jolly well pleases.