Anatomy of Baseball
Edited by Lee Gutkind and Andrew Blauner.
Foreword by Yogi Berra
Southern Methodist University Press, 210 pp., $22.50
With the baseball season in full swing, what better time to reflect on the almost hypnotic hold that our national pastime maintains on our collective psyche? Despite recent talk of baseball's decline, it is a sport with deep roots in our country's past, and, for many readers, our own personal histories. With the "Anatomy of Baseball," editors Lee Gutkind and Andrew Blauner celebrate that lineage with a tidy anthology of 20 essays sure to spark the imaginations of hardball neophytes and aficionados alike.
In fact, "Anatomy of Baseball" doesn't do this collection justice. Too clinical, too antiseptic. "Baseball: Love Letters" might be more apt, since many of the essays belie, if not true love, at the very least an affection for or devotion to the grand game. What this collection best represents is the full spectrum of the baseball experience, from romantic to nostalgic to eclectic. How eclectic? Amid the predictable salutes to gear, ballparks, and fandom is Caitlin Horrocks's humorous "Pesapallo: Playing on the Edge of the World," depicting an indecipherable Finnish variant of baseball. She quotes the legendary sportswriter Red Smith, who, after watching an exhibition match at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, wrote: pesapallo "was invented by Lauri Pinkkala, a professor who wears a hearing aid. . . . Somebody must have described baseball to him when his battery was dead." Which, with all due respect to Horrocks's fine effort, leaves the reader wanting for more tales by Smith.
The beauty of the anthology approach is the variety of perspective that the 20 authors bring, with each offering something that readers can relate to. The late, great George Plimpton waxes eloquent on his inexorable passage from pitcher's mound to right field, while the outfield has a more poetic if sometimes ribald connotation for Salem State College writing instructor JD Scrimgeour. Both pieces are whimsical and light-hearted, revealing the game as a metaphor for the stages of life.
Of course, there's a special place for the tools of the trade, especially gloves and bats (the wooden variety only). In "My Glove: A Biography," Stefan Fatsis explores the intimate relationship with his prized leather mitt, breathing life into an inanimate object. "A glove has to feel like an extension of your hand, something over which you have the motor control of a surgeon repairing a capillary." Philip F. Deaver pays homage to a special hunk of lumber: "Even the sandlot kids could eye the ash or hickory and see promise in the grain of the wood, tell what felt right in the distribution of the weight between the handle and the barrel. They could take a couple of practice swings and know if it was good in the hands. It was intuition and experience, not science; it was also partly faith. If the bat felt right, so did the batter when he stepped to the plate." Red Sox fans will delight in references to Boston and the Olde Towne Team sprinkled throughout, though some, such as Matt Wood's admission in "First Base of Last Resort" that he got tagged with the nickname "Buckner" after committing a particularly embarrassing error, are still painful.
Saving the best for last, baseball's poet laureate, Roger Angell, serves up a fabulous treatise on the baseball itself. Angell's essay from 1976, studying the ball and the mythic minuet between pitcher and batter, is timeless. Consider his depiction of a young Cleveland fireballer, Bob Feller, who was so wild that "when his searing fastball missed the plate it had the batters jumping around in the box like roasting popcorn."
Overall, this anthology is like a great stable of starting pitchers (think the 2007 BoSox, with Beckett, Matsuzaka, Schilling, Lester, Wakefield, and no-hit whiz kid Buchholz). You can expect a few bumps in the road, and the occasional stinker (baseball, after all, is the most egalitarian of pro sports, and even great teams lose two out of five games). One clunker is veteran writer Frank Deford's surprisingly limp account of baseball caps; another is Rick Harsch's misguided, egotistical critique of umpiring in Slovakia.
Still, with a top-shelf pitching lineup, you also know the season on the whole is going to be a success. So is "Anatomy of Baseball." As Yogi Berra, the Yankees' Hall of Fame catcher, states with uncharacteristic clarity: "The game goes back to before the Civil War, but it never gets old. Neither does a good baseball book."