Jock Lit

Need Relief? Summon the Pen.

Hits, errors, wishful thinking, dashed dreams, nice people finishing last—baseball books are just like the game itself. Don't judge the following select list of recent books only by their covers (or their authors). But if you do, you'll be both delighted and disappointed. As we said, just like the game.


A Pitcher's Story: Innings With David Cone
By Roger Angell
Warner Books, 290 pp., $24.95

A couple of years ago this must have seemed like a great idea: baseball's prose laureate and baseball's most articulate player hooking up. No one could foresee that David Cone was about to take a 4-14 nosedive and jeopardize his fast-fading Hall of Fame chances; even less could they know that he'd try one more hugely improbable comeback and that it would actually show signs of succeeding. As it stands, A Pitcher's Story doesn't quite work on any level. Instead of a clear sense of both voices, we get a watered-down sound of both.

Part of the problem, of course, must be written off to the unholy funk in which Cone spent much of the season; it's tough to take time out to sum up your thoughts in a season where your summed-up thoughts are something like "I wonder if I'm washed up?" So Angell often has the unpleasant task of trying to force answers out of Cone, or force meaning into him. Or as Angell phrases it when Cone is banished to the purgatory for ailing starters called the bullpen, "Instead of an inside look at a wizardly old master at his late last best, this was going to be Merlin falling headlong down the palace stairs, the pointy hat airborne and the wand clattering." Problem is, it isn't just Cone's wand we hear clattering. Seemingly unable to find a sharp hook for the book, Angell falls back to the old device of finding two David Cones, one the multi-millionaire ballplayer and the other—surprise—a humble (at heart) guy who really can't believe, deep down, that anyone who grew up in the Midwest loving baseball could be paid so much money for playing it. "What nobody tells you is how to handle all that. How do you do that without embarrassment?" Well, Dave, you just imagine how much better off you are now than before you had "all that" and just try to do the best you can.

Trust me, it isn't that you'll have trouble believing that, no matter what you thought of Cone when he was in a Mets or Yankees uniform. The problem is that once you do, you find less to interest you about David Cone. Like so many other quirky, intelligent ballplayers, Cone gets less interesting the more we know "the real" him. The real Cone, the vulnerable, insecure guy, is too much like us. The tough, shrewd, working-class intellectual Irish punk he constructed around himself was lots more interesting than the "real" David Cone, and Angell is too honest to pretend otherwise. Myself, I wanted to know more about that "Weird Sex Act in Bullpen" (to quote the New York Post's headline), but I guess they don't get a New Yorker editor for that kind of thing. —Allen Barra


Home Run: The Best Writing About Baseball's Most Exciting Moment
Edited by George Plimpton
Harvest, 278 pp., $13

Notwithstanding Joyce Carol Oates's relentless efforts on behalf of boxing, baseball remains the game of choice for grad-schooled pencil necks who can't take a sport seriously until it's been canonized in The New Yorker or on PBS (thank you, Roger; thank you, Ken). That crowd is the apparent target demographic for this book devoted to the socio-cultural import of the home run, compiled by eternal pencil neck George Plimpton and featuring writers more readily associated with Harper's than with Sports Illustrated. I mean, seriously, does anyone need to hear John Updike's take on baseball? Or Garrison Keillor's? Or Gregory Corso's? Honey, did you renew my New York Review of Books subscription?

Plimpton, a man as in love with his own work as the sports world has ever seen, sets the pretentiously highbrow tone in his intro and first chapter, tossing off annoying little asides in French and referring to "my participatory journalism stints" (must've been a typo—they were stunts, not stints). Unfortunately, he could have used a fact checker (Dave Kingman played for four different teams in 1977, not 1972, and retired in 1986, not 1979), not to mention a baseball-fluent copy editor (it's a "high fastball," not a "high, fast ball").

The 15 or so essays that follow include a few beauties, most notably Robert Peterson's profile of Negro Leagues star Josh Gibson and a nice excerpt from Bernard Malamud's immortal The Natural (if you've seen the movie more recently than you've read the book, you owe it to yourself to revisit the text). But the overarching feel is one of intellectual and literary snootiness, as if to say, "Look, we've got real writers here—you don't even have to hide this book under your copy of Lingua Franca when you read it on the subway." The only surprise is that there's no contribution from Norman Mailer—maybe he was busy doing a boxing story with Oates. —Paul Lukas

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