There's a lot more to baseball than the game that's played between the lines, as anyone who pays even passing attention to the sports pages too well knows. Labor disputes, stadium leases, broadcast deals, multimillion-dollar player contracts -- at times the game seems a mere sideshow to all the wheeling and dealing that take place off the field, and ever the more so as the stakes get steadily larger and more lucrative.
This off-the-diamond business is in varying degrees the subject of these three new books, the first of which tells us that there is indeed nothing new under the sun. In "A.G. Spalding and the Rise of Baseball," Peter Levine has written a brief biography of the 19th-century ballplayer-turned-tycoon whose life's work "reaffirmed his continual desire to have monopolistic control of professional baseball rest in the hands of competent businessmen with full power and authority to regulate its every aspect, including the potential competition of other capitalists and the careers of its players."
Spalding's baseball career lasted from the end of the Civil War until the turn of the century, and its repercussions still are felt. He was a canny, ambitious entrepreneur who guided the Chicago White Stockings to impressive successes, helped found and strengthen the National League, and built up a hugely successful sporting-goods firm. He believed that sport "built character, encouraged order and discipline, and produced the type of citizen necessary for continued American greatness," Levine argues, and thus had a more durable influence on American attitudes than he is generally given credit for.
But the structure of the game he helped create has changed traumatically over the past decade, primarily because of what Peter Gammons calls "the new era" that began with the coming of free agency a decade ago. This happened not long after the celebrated 1975 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Cincinnati Reds, featuring the memorable sixth game; Gammons' book, the dust jacket claims, is about "what's happened to baseball since the greatest game in World Series history." The claim, unfortunately, would not pass a truth-in-advertising test. Gammons is a terrific reporter, but there's almost no original reporting here. What we get, rather than a genuine inquiry into baseball's altered state, is a game-by-game recitation of Boston's past nine seasons, spiced up with brief profiles of various actors in the never-ending Red Sox melodrama. "Beyond the Sixth Game" is strictly for Bosox fans, who are habitually described as "long-suffering" and are likely to feel even more so after wading through this book.
Considerably more pleasure and enlightenment are to be found in Daniel Okrent's "Nine Innings." Okrent had the imaginative notion to focus on a single major-league game and to use it as a springboard from which to show how baseball really works. The game he chose was played between the Milwaukee Brewers and Baltimore Orioles in June 1982, a year in which the Brewers ultimately won their division in a dramatic final-game showdown against these same Orioles. Thus it could be said that the June game provided the final margin of victory for the Brewers, since they won it; but winning and losing are of less moment to Okrent than what goes on behind the scenes -- the actual game itself, in fact, tends to get lost in the shuffle, which is the only flaw in an otherwise engaging book.
As the game works its leisurely way to the final out -- the score ended up 9-7, and the playing time was more than three hours -- Okrent makes his own leisurely inquiries into the various institutions, individuals and traditions that collaborated to make it possible. He describes the rise of free agency and the new free market under which players can move about pretty much as they wish; the labyrinthine efforts through which a major-league team was lured to the relatively small city of Milwaukee; the prevalence of "unbusinesslike practices" in many baseball offices; the relationship (or lack of same) between owners and their customers, the fans; the increasing importance of broadcast revenues; the hectic atmosphere at baseball's winter meetings, where trading is often the principal order of business.
But there's plenty of real baseball in "Nine Innings" as well. Okrent writes amusingly and perceptively about many players on both teams, about coaches and managers, about the uneasy, ambiguous relationship between ballplayers and those perpetual outsiders, the gentlemen in the press box. He appears to like the players, but he doesn't go easy on them, especially in his depiction of the "self-possession" and arrogance of the clubhouse. From first inning to ninth he has a lot to tell us about how baseball really works, and passionate fans are likely to regard "Nine Innings" as a genuine treat.