Perhaps the greatest pleasure of reviewing books for a living is the occasional volume that comes in without a single bleat of publicity yet announces its own merit when you turn to the first page. The joy of discovery is not to be sniffed at; lately I have been feeling particularly joyful because of a little book called Don't Let Baseball Die, by Art Hill.
It's about as unprepossessing a volume as one could find. Its paperback jacket is uninviting,, its typography is very ordinary and error-filled, and its publisher is obscure—Avery Color Studios, from which you can order a copy for $4.95 by writing to Box 95, Au Train, Mich. 49806. But there's a silk purse in that sow's ear; Don't Let Baseball Die is a genuine original, a book that will give any reader who cares about baseball and good prose a full measure of surprise and delight.
Art Hill has been a Detroit Tiger fan for half a century, and that's about all we're told about him. It's enough, for what he has written is a fan's journal, an account of the Tigers' 1978 season as perceived from the stands, radio and television broadcasts and newspaper reports. It begins in late February of last year, with the arrival of the Detroit pitchers at spring training, and ends in November, at the beginning of yet another winter of rueful memories of the season past and extravagant hopes for the season ahead. In between, Hill ventures wherever his fancy takes him, but always with baseball at center stage.
The journal is published as written, Hill tells us, with each day's musings and commentaries unvarnished by hindsight. Thus it has immediacy, freshness and candor, and the reader lives through the season's ups and downs just as Hill did. "I want to write a book about one baseball season from the viewpoint of the average fan," he says at the outset, but Hill is "average" only in his enthusiasm for his team. It is precisely because he is unusually intelligent, knowledgeable, witty and trenchant that his journal rises well above mere grandstand chatter.
To begin with, Hill is heartily irreverent. The title of his book, for example, is not the maudlin wail it seems to be but a wry bow in the direction of the late Bill Stern, the radio broadcaster who each week gave his listeners an entirely fanciful but invariably "inspirational" sports tale. In one of these, Hill recalls, Stern advised his breathless audience that Abraham Lincoln, "on his deathbed, painfully whispered to General Abner Doubleday, 'Don't let baseball die.' " Hill has this comment:
"If Lincoln had spoken at all after being shot, it seems more likely that he would have said, 'Don't let me die.' But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this fable is that, if it had happened, the general's response would doubtless have been, 'Why me?' (Or, conceivably, 'What's baseball?') Abner Doubleday died in 1893 without ever learning that he was the inventor of baseball, since that fiction—fully as fantastic as most of Stern's—wasn't fabricated until many years later."
That's the way Hill's mind works. Any stray thought that crosses it works its way into the journal, and his stray thoughts are first-rate. He quarrels with Gore Vidal about baseball and boredom, he takes various sportswriters and broadcasters to task for execrable grammar, he dawdles lovingly over the most arcane statistics, and he essays solutions to baseball mysteries. For example: "Have you ever wondered how Graig Nettles got his unusual name? My theory is that his father wanted to name him Greg and his mother preferred Craig. So they compromised. Probably better than Creg, at that."
As a die-hard fan, Hill readily confesses to all the weaknesses of the breed. To wit: "I am terribly superstitious about baseball, while scorning superstition in other areas as childish nonsense. I always feel that my relation to a given game somehow has an effect on the outcome. If I turn on a game broadcast in the seventh inning to discover the Tigers leading by four runs, and the other team promptly scores five, I find myself wondering if it was my fault."
(I know just what he means. The other day I was watching an Orioles game in the kitchen while polishing some brass. When I finished I could have moved the TV set into the living room, but did not do so for fear the Orioles would lose their narrow lead as a result.)
Hill isn't hesitant about speaking his mind. What he detests most is "dumb baseball," and he wallops the Tigers mightily for careless play. He is particularly hard on Ralph Houk, who was in his final season as manager last year. Hill says of Houk, "He has taken a team with great apparent potential and gotten the worst out of it."
You can agree or disagree with Hill—most of the time I agree—but you can't ignore him. If I were attending a game in Detroit, I'd just ask the man in the ticket office to give me a seat next to Art Hill; the talk would probably be better than the baseball. In lieu of that, Don't Let Baseball Die is an eminently satisfactory companion, as I think all readers will agree.