"IN THE MEMORY of almost everyone of us, is there anything that can evoke spring better," Thomas Wolfe wrote in his memorable way, "than the sound of a ball smacking into the pocket of the big mitt, the sound of the bat as it hits the horsehide. . . . And is there anything that can tell more about an American summer than, say, the smell of the wooden bleachers in a small twon baseball park, that resinous, sultry and exciting smell of old dry wood."
Wolfe is right: we awaken in Arpil each year to baseball as readily as to crocuses and robins. A new season starts; another drama begins to play itself out. And books on baseball roll off the presses.
Here is an active inning of them, two on the fortunes past and present of the New York Yankees, and one on the game from the perspective of longtime umpire, Tom Gorman. The first two bear heavily on winning. If you believe St. Leo-Durocher, that is-and most Americans apparently do, nice guys finish last.
The New York Yankees are perpetual winners, the embodiment of the American penchant to prevail. No team or figure has ever dominated any sport as the Yankees have baseball. Over the last 60 years they have won 32 pennants and 22 World Series while producing the stars of four fabulous eras, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig (1920-39), Joe DiMaggio (1936-51), Mickey Mantle (1951-68), and players like Reggie Jackson, Ron Guidry, and Catfish Hunter, the so-called "money players" of the last decade. The Yankees is an admirable attempt by four veteran writers to chronicle this greatness.
Ruth came to the Yankees in 1920 and auspiciously swatted 54 homers-more than any entire team's output that year. And, despite his gourmandizing and womanizing (a teammate once said he didn't room with Ruth but with his suitcase), he continued knocking the ball out of parks, making the Yankees and rejuvenating baseball in the process. In 1925 he was joined in terrorizing opposing teams by the straight-arrow indefatigable Gehrig, and the super pair ruled the roost until the mid-'30s when Joe DiMaggio arrived.
All DiMaggio did in his 13 seasons was to lead the team to 10 pennants and nine World Series Championships. A Giant fan in those years, I nurtured a positive hatred for likeable Joe-a hate that couldn't obscure his greatness, his style with the stick and glove. He never dived for a ball; he didn't have to-he was always there, waiting. When the brass offered him his previous year's salary of $100,000 for 1952, he declined and said he was retiring because he just coudn't meet his own standards any longer.
Thereafter, the ambidextrous Mantle and other stars in the galaxy flashed by. Some who added their brilliance and contributed to the synthesis of success were Charley "King Kong" Keller ("The first player brought back by Frank Buck," cracked Lefty Gomez); Roger Maris, who in 1961 broke Ruth's season homer record of 60; Don Larsen, who pitched a perfect game but posed problems for Casey Stengel (Casey on why Larsen was out at 5 in the morning the time he wrapped his car around a light pole, "He went out to mail a letter"); and so many others that to identify them would be a catalog rather than a list.
The current talented crop, however, I find less interesting. They seem more involved in dollars than playing the game in the gutsy manner of their great predecessors. In portraying the Yankees' 1978 season, The Bronx Zoo by Sparky Lyle and Peter Golenbock reeks of jealousy, gossip and horseplay. Clearly these are the good days, the meat-at-every-meal days. Even fun is forced, the practical jokes are crude and infantile. The show business, in short, detracts from the baseball.
Three and two is Tom Gorman's story of what it was like to have worked 25 years as a National League umpire. Of how to handle a ranting Durocher protesting an "out" call on his man going down to first base. Gorman: "Leo, he tagged the base with the wrong foot." And the myriad judgments umpires must make promptly and objectively (one of the best of the men in blue, Bill Klem, put it well: "I never missed one in my heart"). Add the travel and associated turmoil and one sees that the umpire's lot is a hard one. Because many calls can make umpires hated by half the players and fans (Harry "Steamboat" Johnson was hit in the head once in Memphis by a copy of his biography, Standing the Gaff , tossed by an ardent and accurate fan), they have to be tough. Size helps. George Magerkurth and the giant exfootballer Cal Hubbard found few takers. But even the smaller ones do wonders at controlling a volatile game. Bill Klem, who oozed the rugged out of all proportion to his size, characterized it with his classic, "It ain't nothing till I call it!" CAPTION: Picture 1, Jim (Catfish) Hunter; Picture 2, Ron Guidry; Picture 3, Thurman Munson; Picture 4, Reggie Jackson; Picture 5, Mick ey Mantle with Willie Mays when they were both rookies in the 1951 World Series, Photographs from "The Yankees"