WHAT WE HAVE HERE is my desert-island package for the summer of 1982. Others, contemplating the prospect of being marooned in the South Pacific, may choose to fill their bags with Proust, or Dickens, or Austen or Spillane. They are welcome to do so, even if their distant island turns out to be a cottage at Rehoboth or a chalet at Burnsville. But for me, as the heat and the humidity begin their inexorable march toward the insufferable and the intolerable, all thoughts turn to baseball. For the next several months, if I am not watching the game in the agreeable confines of Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, I am likely to be talking or thinking or reading about it. And when it comes to reading, these five books are a Godsend -or, a Ruthsend.
Even in these postinflationary times, at a total price of $65.35 they are a bargain. Taken together, they weave what Roger Angell calls "the web of baseball" in a most beguiling and hypnotizing fashion. They offer enough good prose (from Angell and Bill James) to satisfy the choosy reader; a generous measure of diamond lore, legend and arcana; and statistics in such profusioin as to send the mind reeling giddily into the highest precincts of Nirvana. I have spent hours with them already, and have barely sampled the riches they provide; with them securely in hand, I look to the summer ahead much as Keats looked to Chapman's Homer "like some watcher of the skies/When a new planett swims into his ken. . . ," silent, upon a peak in Baltimore. Or, as Angell puts it:
"Baseball is simple but never easy. Each year, just before spring comes I begin to wonder if I shouldn't give up this game. Surely it must be time for me to cut short my abiding, summer-consuming preoccupation with scores and standings and averages, and to put an end to all those evening and weekend hours given to the tube and morning hours given to the sports pages. Is there no cure for this second-hand passion, which makes me a partner, however unwilling, in the blather of publicity, the demeaning emptiness of hero worship, and the inconceivably wasteful outpourings of money and energy that we give to professional sports now?. . . I think I am almost too old for baseball, but every year I find that I need to go on learning it. Most of all, I think, baseball disarms us."
So does Roger Angell. Late Innings is his third collection of baseball pieces, and on the whole it reaffirms his position as the most astute and graceful chronicler the sport has known. I say "on the whole" because, at the risk of seeming to deface a national monument, I find Angell somewhat short of his best in many of these articles, which appeared in The New Yorker between 1977 and 1981. He has, perhaps, stayed too long at the fair; especially in his by-now-traditional spring-training and post season pieces, he too often seems to be going through the motions brilliant and inimitable motions, to be sure, but familiar ones all the same. This may cause no ennui on the reader's part, but I sense some on Angell's; he is repeating himself, as in his repeated references here to "the foolish and dispiriting winter baseball news." With the exception of a fine profile of the great pitcher Bob Gibson, and several passages in other pieces, Angell's best baseball writing is not here, but in The Summer Game and Five Seasons.
But these reservations are listed only because the writer under discussion is Roger Angell; he must be held to the standards he has set for himself, and they are very high indeed. Under any other byline, Late Innings would be welcomed as splendid work. It provides a perceptive, opinionated, informed account of five seasons that began with the three-homer high-water mark of "the Jacksonian Era" -Reggie Jacksonian, that is and ended with the strike ("From first to last, the crisis was an invention of the owners. . . ") and the farcical split season. Angell has penetrating things to say about interesting subjects: the father-son relationship between baseball generations, the age of big money, the growing distance between players and fans. Above all, he is a fan who loves the game, who understands its intricacy and its mystery and its history. He quotes the Milwaukee catcher, Ted Simmons:
"There is no better game -I don't care if it's bridge or hockey or basketball or backgammon. Baseball has the ingredients to satisfy everybody. There's strategy, subtlety, tactics, beauty -everything. Unfortunately, not nearly enough people get a chance to experience the game at all levels, the way players do, but you don't really have to play baseball to understand its finesse and grace. All through a game, there aree plays that result from a ball being hit to a certain place, and the patterns they follow tell you what's really going on and how the game is really played. If a fan is paying close attention, instead of just watching the flight of the ball, he can begin to pick this up."
The fan can help himself acquire an appreciation of these complexities unfolding before him by consulting the manual prepared by the team for which Simmons labors. The purpose of the Major League Baseball Manual, now made available to the general public after getting a boost from Angell in one of his New Yorker pieces, is to "teach young players from their first day in the Brewer organization the way we want them to execute baseball fundamentals," and it is most likely to be of greatest interest to aspiring players and coaches. But its concluding section, "Defensive Assignments," is terrific reading for the fan as well. In showing how each fielder should be positioned for each of dozens of situations "single to left field between shortstop and third baseman," for example, or "double, possible triple, down right-field line" it underscores baseball's difficulty and fascination. As Angell might put it, baseball is a hard game.
Just ask Michael Raymond Palaygi, who was born in 1917 in the Ohio town of Conneaut and 22 years later made an appearance on the pitcher's mound in the uniform of the (O lost!) Washington Senators. It was the only appearance he made, which is understandable when you consider that he walked three men and did not get a single out. He compiled an infinite earned run average, another way of saying that at the great diamond in the sky they are still circling the bases on him. Instantly, he disappeared into the mists of baseball history.
And into the pages of The Baseball Encyclopedia, which is where I found him. I was looking for Jim Palmer (though after his performance this spring, God or Ruth only knows why) and found Mike Palaygi instead. There are many reasons to love The Baseball Encyclopedia, but for me serendipity is chief among them. Open it to any page and you are drawn into the labyrinthine passages of baseball's past: the Krsnich brothers, Mike and Rocky, or Farmer Steelman, or the Pages and the Paiges, or the Hargrave brothers, Bubbles and Pinky, or Bert Blue and Lu Blue and Ossie Bluege and Otto Bluege and Vida Blue and Jim Bluejacket. Start turning the pages and you can't stop; it's worse than eating peanuts or grapes or M&Ms, and I love it. Icehouse Wilson! Highball Wilson! Mookie Wilson! Mutt Wilson! Squanto Wilson! Willie Wilson! Zeke Wilson!
The encyclopedia is now in its fifth edition, "revised and expanded," andd that is just fine with me. I wish that they had not dropped the all-time rosters for every team in the National and American Leagues, American Association, Union Association, Players League and Federal League, but space appears to be the explanation; with these eliminated, the book has been kept to the same number of pages as the privious edition and to a price only $5 higher. As with all previous editions save the lamentable second, the book is sturdy, handsome and Talmudic. I cannot imagine life without it.
Nor, I suspect, can Bill James. For six springs James, a practitioner of a black art called sabermetrics "the mathematical and statistical analysis of baseball records" has been publishing as "abstract" of the previous season's statistics. Up to now he has been his own publisher, churning out primitively bound and printed volumes from his house in Kansas and circulating them to "a number of people who could congregate peacefully in the restrooms in the left field bleachers in Yankee Stadium." He jests. His audience has grown sufficiently large to warrant his capture by a leading paperback publisher, who now makes James' crafty work available to the large readership that it certainly deserves, in a handsome edition that is, by contrast with its five predecessors, entirely legible.
It should be conceded that James is something of a baseball snob and a statistics snob; he has little patience with those (I certainly am among them) who do not share his infinite fascination with the game's most trivial nuances or his fine hand with numbers, and his condescension comes through in his prose. But never mind. His stats are wonderful, his irreverence is delicious ("If all the newspaper stories that have been written about Billy Martin were put in a pile in the middle of New Jersey, it would be the best place for them"), and following the workings of his mind is an endlessly surprising and rewarding task. Of the Detroit pitcher Milt Wilcox he writes:
"Neither rain, nor sleet, nor hail nor gloom of strike shall stay this sturdy courier from winning 12 or 13 games. Last four records have been 13-12, 12-10, 13-11, 12-9. Sounds like one of those SAT questions. What is the next element in this series? The logical answer would be 13-10."
Discussing the Milwaukee slugger Gorman Thomas, James veers off into a characteristic digression:
"Did you know that players named Thomas have hit 682 home runs in major league play, the ninth highest total for any surname? They passed Mays last May with their 669th and are closing in ont he Joneses, whose first in 1982 will be their 700th. The top 10 names for home runs are Williams (1,762), Robinson, Johnson, Smith, Jackson, Aaron, Ruth, Jones, Thomas and Mays. More stuff you'd never know if you didn't read the Baseball Abstract."
As it happens, in the great battle among the surnames for home-run supremacy I am rooting for the Robinsons. That's because 508 of the Robinsons' 1,499 homers were struck in the uniform of the Baltimore Orioles by Robinsons named Brooks, Earl and Frank 866, if you count the homers struck by Frank while in the employ of other clubs. The Orioles are my team and I look out for their interests at every turn, which is why my armchair companion is their 1982 Information Guide. Published for members of the sporting press, but available to the general public at a modest price, this comes within a hair's breadth of being a model press brochure; its principal blemish is a rather erratic organizational scheme that an incomplete index does not entirely unravel. But that's no big deal; the info is there for the fan with the patience to locate it, from the private phone numbers of all th big-league P.R. people to a listing of the Orioles' major trades over the years to an enumeration of how the team has performed in every American League park. There's food for thought on every page, such as the reminder thatt bet you'd forgotten this Harvey Haddix, George Kell and Marv Throneberry were once Orioles, or the observation that among pitchers opposing the Orioles over the years, "probably the least successful was Jim Colborn, formerly of Milwaukee, K.C. and Seattle, who was 3-17 lifetime."
Which brings us to the question that may haunt the entire summer: Where are you, Jim Colborn, now that we need you?