I GLANCED UP FROM MY BOOK to see a woman across the aisle of the bus looking at me. Strangely. First at me, then the dust jacket of the book, then at me again. The book was Screwballs, subtitled, "A novel about the man who tried to save baseball." The cover drawing: a beady-eyed, bulbous-nosed, cauliflower-eared character in a red baseball cap with a Nellie Fox-size wad of tobacco in his jaw.
The woman's questioning look reminded me of the day I reported for my first newspaper job. I walked into the newsroom carrying The Southpaw. A colleague, who had vouched for me and gotten me the job, was embarrassed. "For God's sake," he whispered, "don't walk in here with that. If you have to carry something, carry James Joyce."
I tried to explain that anybody should be proud to read The Southpaw, that this guy Mark Harris wrote it and, by the way, hadn't he heard of Henry Wiggen. My friend rolled his eyes, I'd have taken it back the next day had I not finished it before work.
I wish I felt as strongly about Screwballs, "Listen lady, I know it's a strange title and you must think weird but let me tell you. . . ." Instead, I meekly closed the book, put it face down, conceded the East Division race to the Yankees and shortly made my exit from the bus, summer heat smacking me in the face. Here it is, already past midseason, and not even a minor classic of a baseball book has yet been served up.
This literary baseball season reminds me of the St. Louis Browns. But even the Browns had their Ned Garver, that steady right-hander who somehow managed 59 of his 129 victories for them, I'm reminded by one of the 13 new books I've just plowed through. So, too, among these new works are some solid enough entries, like trusted middle-inning relievers called on to carry us until the likes of a Malamud or Coover or Harris (his It Looked Like For Ever last year, with Henry Wiggen at age 40 and cut by the Mammoths, wasn't quite it) or Roger Kahn at his Boys-of-Summer best or Roger Angell again come roaring out of some publishing house bullpen ready to pour it on.
For one, there's Guidry, by Ron Guidry and Peter Golenbock (Prentice-Hall, $8.95), surprisingly warm and well written. Usually when an athlete compliles a record such as the Yankee left-hander Guidry's 25-3 in 1978, he needs a stout mallet to fend off potential biographers. The resutling collaboration usually makes one wish the athlete had used the mallet. But Golenbock is good at what he does; he already has to his credit a worthwhile history of the Yankees, Dynasty, and the best-selling collaboration with Sparky Lyle, The Bronx Zoo.
Rather than assault us with statistics and rehash, Golenbock goes to Guidry's native Louisiana Cajun country and gets to know Guidry. He quotes talking about his minor-league days:
"I kept having nightmares. . . . In one of them a huge baseball came down out of the sky, snatched me out of bed and carried me away. Another one I kept having, and I continued to have this one for a couple of years, was going into my windup, rearing back, making the big kick, and on my follow-through having my left arm fly right off my body and go spinning into space."
When Guidry finally did reach the big leagues, Yankee owner George Steinbrenner had some words for him: "Guidry, you will never be able to pitch in this league." So Guidry took out his wrath on the batters -- possibly what Steinbrenner had in mind -- but not even 25 victories in a season could erase the hurt. Golenbock lets us feel it.
The Guidry relatives are immensely likable people. They care about one another.Guidry's much younger brother. Travis. has had brain damage from birth, and Ronnie's love grew deep. "I would exercise his muscles for hours. We'd get him to laugh, and he started becoming much more normal than the doctors expected him to be. I'd bring him into bed with me and play games with him and talk to him and, finally, he would drop off to sleep."
Guidry is the only sports book I know that concludes with a few Cajun recipes. Golenbock liked the cooking and passes along. "Chicken and Sausage Gumbo," "Ron's Wild Duck Special" and others. Who would have imagined "Guidry" shelved next to Julia Child?
Advance praise for "I Don't Care If I Never Come Back, by Art Hill (Simon and Schuster, $11.95): "It is not the slightest exaggeration to say that be belongs with Ring Lardner, John Lardner, Red Smith, Roger Angell, Roger Kahn and those few others who have combined an affectionate knowledge of baseball with absolutely first-rate prose." So says Robert Creamer, author of Babe. Personally, I think he exaggerates slightly. But only slightly. Where have you been Art Hill? Off in the "advertising business" for a lifetime, according to his bio; Art Hill answered the wrong calling. Hill's use of diary form and a few short sections, such as how he came to name his book seem unnecessary; but he writes crisply, with humor and irony and love for the Detroit Tigers and baseball in general. "And every spring, the first time I see a shortstop charge a slow bounding ball, short-hop it on the edge of the grass and in the same motion throw to first, beating the runner by a half-step, I rediscover its magical beauty and I marvel at my good fortune."
Hill attended an historic Yankee game in Detroit in 1939; "The announcer intoned the fateful words: 'Dahlgren, first base.' And then we knew. After 2,130 consecutive games, Lou Gehrig's streak was ending. . . . A few moments later, Lou Gehrig emerged from the dugout to carry the lineup card up to home plate. The disease that would kill him two years later (but about which we then knew nothing) had already begun to cripple him, because I clearly remember that he walked slowly and rather stiffly . . . I also remember that the fans stood up and applauded for what seemed like a long time but was probably about two minutes . . ." It was more dramatic, Hill adds, than the movie Pride of the Yankees, in which Gehrig goes out for a pinch-hitter to end his streak, an impossibility only Hollywood could confect.
Baseball Diamond: Tales, Traces, Visions and Voodoo from a Native American Rite, edited by Kevin Kerrane and Richard Grossinger (Anchor/Doubleday, paperback, $11.95) (first published in hardcover in 1976 as Baseball I Gave All the Best Years of My Life), ranks in. the first division of baseball anthologies. There's everything from Updike ("Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu"), Phillip Roth, Pat Jordan and Willie Morris to Bart Giamatti in his pre-university-president days to an essay called "Qubalistic Sex* Magick for Shortstops and Second Basemen" to a poem about Willie Miranda. Ah Willie Miranda, shortstop, great glove.
For Red Sox fans and kids of all ages there is The Ballpark: One Day Behind the Scenes at a Major League game, by William Japsersohn (Little, Brown, $8.95; paperback $4.95). It may be for small boys but the story and all those wonderful pictures are of Fenway, which makes it all right for 40-year-olds to carry around. As Updike excerpted in Baseball diamonds, says of Fenway: "Everything is painted green and seems in curiously sharp focus, like the inside of an old-fashioned peeping-type Easter egg. It was built in 1912 and rebuilt in 1934, and offers, as do most Boston artifacts, a compromise between Man's Euclidean determinations and Nature's beguiling irregularities."
A bonus for Red Sox faithful: Red Sox: Triumphs and Tragedies, by Ed Walton (Scarborough/Stein and Day, paperback, $10.95) offers every imaginable fact about the Sox, including the kinds of bats used, the scouts, the lineups at the pawtucket farm no less and countless other oddities, such as, "St. Louis Browns shortstop Billy Hunter once asked Sox outfielder Jim Piersall to adjust the second base bag, and Piersall did so Hunter, who had the ball, tagged him out."
The Men in Blue: Conversations with Umpires, by Larry R. Gerlach (Viking, $12.95) suffers from the sameness of each umpire's story; in this collection, most are former players who want to stick in the game and proceed to climb up from the minors. The only change of pace is Ernie Stewart's tale; an American League umpire from 1941, Stewart tells of being forced to resign by league president Will Harridge as commissioner Happy Chandler stood by after Chandler had persuaded Stewart to try to organize the umpires to gain better working conditions. In happier times, Stewart was the umpire on third when Keltner made his two remarkable stops to end DiMaggio's 56-game streak.
Damn Yankee: The Billy Martin Story, by Maury Allen (Times Books, $10.95), and Billy Martin, by Gene Schoor (Doubleday, $11.95), read like most of yesterday's sports pages.From page 67 of Damn Yankees: "DiMaggio played his last game in the 1951 World Series against the Dodgers." Guidry's biographer Golenbock is said to be working on still another Martin book; better to wait.
Meanwhile, some names to savor while awaiting the late-season double-headers; Beans Reardon, Charlie "Paw Paw" Maxwell, Gee Walker, Chief Bender, Steve Bilko, Moe Berg, John Paciorek and everybody in the game named Rube, Bobo, Bubba, Cy, Ty and Pie. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, From "Screwballs" by Jay Cronley (Doubleday, $10)