THE ARMCHAIR BOOK OF BASEBALL II Edited by John Thorn Scribners. 432 pp. $19.95 SIXTY-ONE The Team, The Record, The Men By Tony Kubek and Terry Pluto Macmillan. 269 pp. $19.95
JUST AS surely as spring publishing season follows baseball's fall classic, World Series heroes turn author to give us "inside" stories of amazing seasons. These memoirs include copious lists of meals eaten before big games, injuries risen above, inspirational talks with one's wife or manager and fond references to flaky-but-not-so-fascinating teammates. They conclude with appropriate scenes of triumph or despair, the champagne either flowing or still corked. Hardly the stuff -- which currently abounds -- to supplement a summer's enjoyment of the game or sustain one by the hot stove.
Two books having nothing to do with the 1986 season and much to do with the game's timelessness might better be packed for a forthcoming beach trip, or put on one's shelf for that inevitable day next winter when snow stops this city cold. One is a collection. Baseball having such a rich literature, a baseball collection could be assembled almost blindly. But John Thorn's The Armchair Book of Baseball II shows care. It is a mix of reportage and fiction, old and new but never dated, by some familiar authors and other not-so-famous ones. Sixty-One is a fond and sometimes wistful look back at the powerful '61 Yankee team by one of its members, Tony Kubek; most valuably, it offers an account of Roger Maris' anguished drive to hit a record 61 home runs -- an expectedly sympathetic account that rings true.
How eerie to read, in Baseball II, about Dick Howser just days before he lost his recent battle with cancer. What sadness Dave Anderson has portrayed in "Sandwiches at an Execution," a brief scene in George Steinbrenner's office as the Yankee owner axed Howser from his manager's job -- Howser had the courage not to dignify with a reply such Steinbrenner remarks as, "I think it's safe to say that Dick Howser wants to be a Florida resident year round, right, Dick?" Steinbrenner had ordered two trays of bite-sized sandwiches for the occasion but, as Anderson reported, nobody ate any sandwiches. Even a freeloading and heartless scribe couldn't stomach anything then; Howser, besides going on to manage a world championship team in Kansas City, continued to demonstrate decency and courage up to his death on June 17.
Lake Wobegon won't soon be forgotten, and it is a pleasure to find included the fertile Garrison Keillor's "Old Hard Hands." Wally Bunsen was called Old Hard Hands because he played the game without a glove. "He died while batting for the Lake Wobegon Volunteers . . . versus Albany, bottom of the seventh inning, with men on first and third (later known as 'The Dead Man's Spread')." Hit himself in the head with a foul ball and fell across home plate, it turned out. When Wally had made it briefly to the Cubs, he was told he'd have to wear a glove in the field. But he never could adjust -- his hands were plenty hard without one. The crisis ruined his life. Did it ever.
BASEBALL II (I missed Baseball I but I'm going to read it) is strong on history: John Lardner's long, graceful "Remember the Black Sox?" from a 1938 Saturday Evening Post; "Don't Come Home a Failure" -- from Ty Cobb, Charles C. Alexander's excellent 1984 biography -- which touches on the shaping of Cobb's paranoid and cruel personality; "Out at Home," by Jerry Malloy, from The National Pastime, a look at 1880s baseball and early black players such as pitcher George Washington Stovey, who had 35 wins in the International League, and catcher Moses Fleetwood Walker, "Fleet" Walker out of college at Oberlin. And "How I Pitched the First Curve," by Candy Cummings.
A piece by E.L. Doctorow from Ragtime gives me the impression it got in on the author's name. But I'm glad Thorn has a bit from The Southpaw, my favorite Mark Harris work. And "The Interior Stadium" is a fitting choice from Roger Angell's The Summer Game. In recalling a game, Angell rightly observes, "Only baseball, with its statistics and isolated fragments of time, permits so precise a reconstruction from box score and memory."
Stengel and Creamer, Durocher and Linn, Sparky Lyle and Golenbock -- all the right combinations of subjects and writers are included. "Roger Maris," from Golenbock's book, Dynasty, shows the author breaking through Maris' antipathy toward the media as they go out back of Clete Boyer's Atlanta nightclub not to fight but to talk. The music was too loud inside. Eventually, Boyer joins them, followed by a woman who wants to take his picture. Boyer says to her, "You know who Roger is, don't you?" "No, ah don't," she says. To which Maris responds, "That's just the way I like it."
All he ever wanted was to be left alone, especially when he was trying to break The Babe's home-run record. The extended treatment is in Sixty-One. What Maris got were daily hordes of reporters in front of his locker, and it's not news that the attention made his hair fall out. What's nice is that Kubek gives us glimpses of an occasionally happy Maris, sharing an ordinary and obscure apartment in Queens with Mickey Mantle -- that was as close as it got in New York to Kansas City, where Maris had played happily before his trade to New York, or Nort
Dakota, where he came from and where he is buried. The press and fans made Maris determined to break 60, Kubek believes, but in the end, even after he achieved his goal, he couldn't take New York anymore. Later, he was with the Cardinals when they won two pennants, and was happy again.
St. Louis -- that was more like it.
William Gildea covers sports for The Washington Post.
Jonathan Yardley is on vacation.