Peanuts, Crackerjacks and Tablets

In an era of doctored intelligence reports and elections decided by activist courts, sports take on added importance as a bastion of fairness when that quality is in short supply. The steroid scandal aside, teams in the United States can play with confidence that the rules will be enforced, that umpires and referees will do their best to get the calls right, that the winning side will deserve its victory -- and that lawyers will have no effect on the outcome. Much the same grace extends to sports fans: a comforting sense that, even if nowhere else in this crazy world, inside the stadium skill, brawn and strategy will receive their due in front of spectators' very eyes.

Unless, that is, one team has a payroll twice or three times as large as its opponent's. Despite a limited system of revenue-sharing, it's a brute fact that the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox consistently pull in larger crowds and earn more money from media rights than say, the Kansas City Royals and the Oakland Athletics. With that extra change, the Yanks and Sox are able to outbid other teams, load their roster with superstars and contend for championships year after year while the Royals languish and the A's suffer their annual post-season fizzle. This problem of (im)balance is among the topics addressed by Allen Barra in Brushbacks and Knockdowns: The Greatest Baseball Debates of Two Centuries (Thomas Dunne, $13.95). Like any good debater, Barra sees both sides of the issue. It's important for baseball to appear to be fair, he argues, while at the same time it's good for baseball if big-city teams flourish. "Leagues want high television ratings," he points out. "Other things being the same, MLB would like to see the New York Yankees, the New York Mets, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Anaheim Angels, the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago White Sox appear in the World Series more frequently than the Milwaukee Brewers, the Cincinnati Reds, the Kansas City Royals, or the San Diego Padres." Elsewhere, Barra names Ron Santo and Minnie Minoso as the best players not in the Hall of Fame and Yogi Berra as "the most valuable team player in any sport in the twentieth century."

In The Meaning of Sports (PublicAffairs, $14), Michael Mandelbaum steps back to ask, in the words of his subtitle, "Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football, and Basketball and What They See When They Do." In doing so, he shows some literary smarts by noting the presence of baseball in the work of three great American novelists: "In Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court the American who is transported to medieval England introduces the game to the Knights of the Round Table. Meyer Wolfsheim, one of the characters in Fitzgerald's masterpiece The Great Gatsby, is based on Arnold Rothstein, the gambler alleged to have been the ringleader in the fixing of the 1919 World Series. And Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea refers to 'the great DiMaggio.' "

For other novelists, baseball has been not just a device or a reference, but a character's job or controlling aspiration: Bernard Malamud's The Natural, for example, and W.P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe. Howard Frank Mosher's Waiting for Teddy Williams (Mariner, $13) is a novel of the same stripe. In it, one Ethan "E.A." Allen tries to break free of his disadvantaged background on the strength of his "21st-Century Limited fastball." The striking love affair between literary folk and baseball has been much noted lately, and in an interview Mosher has fingered what might be a partial explanation: "As I see it, both baseball and writing are low-investment but high-risk careers. To play baseball, you need a glove, a bat, a ball, and a vacant lot. To write, you need a pencil or a pen and a tablet. That's the low investment. Then, in both cases, you have to dedicate your entire life to the venture and hope you have the ability to pull it off. That's the high risk."

-- Dennis Drabelle