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Christmas came early to Minorca this year. I was sitting in the middle of the Mediterranean, brooding over the fact that, for the first time in 30 years, I was out of range and had missed the World Series, when along came a huge volume called The Ultimate Baseball Book (Houghton Mifflin, $29.95). It is the book I wanted for Christmas—it is the book I have always wanted for Christmas.

The Ultimate Baseball Book is, as it happens, a Christmas book, a coffee-table book—one of those lavish tomes that publishers with adroit timing bring out in the hope that they'll be snapped up by the affluent buyer seeking the perfect gift for the man or woman who has everything. This year the person who has everything is luckier than ever—if he or she is a baseball fan.

Coffee-table books, covering every conceivable subject from old Dubrovnik to the history of mayonnaise, have traditionally been notable for a wealth of pictures accompanied by text fashioned of fumed oak by a bored or uninspired craftsman. What did it matter? The books were meant to be displayed, exclaimed over and relegated to the bottom shelf of the bookcase before the Rose Bowl game. Or the Hula Bowl, at the outside. Nobody was expected to read them.

The Ultimate Baseball Book belies its provenance. True, it is faithful to the genre in that it is loaded with wonderful pictures, hundreds and hundreds of them, covering American baseball from its father, Alexander Cartwright ("The only thing Abner Doubleday ever started," said Branch Rickey, "was the Civil War"—Doubleday had aimed the first Union shot at Fort Sumter), to one of its latest favorite sons, Jim Rice. Along with countless photos of ballplayers, ancient and modern, there are also reproductions of baseball cards, programs, buttons, book and magazine covers and sheet music (including Mrs. Lou Gehrig's unforgettable I Can't Get to First Base With You). No doubt the illustrations will attract you first, and keep you opening the book right up to Opening Day. But The Ultimate Baseball Book is equally distinguished for its skillful text.

From the first chapter, Robert W. Creamer's expert reconstitution of the "prehistoric" Baltimore Orioles of the '90s, to George V. Higgins' rueful tribute to Fenway Park and the Red Sox, all the essays make marvelous reading. Wilfrid Sheed tells how it was to be a Philadelphia fan, forever vexed by Connie Mack, the skinflint manager who "served up only two kinds of teams, unbeatable and lousy." Philadelphia reporters, says Sheed, were intimidated by the very legend they had created. None of them dared question anything Mack said; was he not renowned for his steely integrity? And why? Because the reporters said he was. Jonathan Yardley pays homage to Christy Mathewson (the best-loved ballplayer ever); John Leonard equates growing up left-wing with rooting for the Dodgers (the wretched of the earth, occasionally triumphing through sheer moral superiority); Mordecai Richler, perhaps the most eminent puberty authority around, describes going through same with minor league ball and the old Montreal Royals. And there's Tom Wicker's paean to Enos Slaughter and his lament that "Country" has failed to make the Hall of Fame; Roy Blount Jr.'s meditations on the enigmatic Joe DiMaggio; and Red Smith's hosanna to Pepper Martin, who "looked like an outsized bird of prey. When he ran he took flight, wings beating, beak splitting the wind, and when he stole a base he swooped down on it with a predator's headlong dive." Gems, every one.

The most surprising prose in the book is David Nemec's running account of the history of the game. It covers the ground, year by year, without ever deteriorating into the drab recitation of names and numbers one expects in this sort of thing. Nemec gives every season an essence of its own, and includes an abundance of the curious facts that are the permanent agenda of the eternal forum that reconvenes every time two or more baseball fans assemble at my house or yours. Curious fact: Jack Sheehan, Brooklyn, 1920, is the only player to match his lifetime regular-season hit total—two—with a like number in the World Series.

Bowie, forgive me, I almost forgot to mention William Wallace's "Anthem," the book's opening sally—a 14-verse poem consisting entirely of the nicknames of 259 ballplayers. I wish I had written either it or The Waste Land. To whet the appetite, here is the first verse:

Catfish, Mudcat, Ducky, Coot.
The Babe, The Barber, The Blade, The Brat.
Windy, Dummy, Gabby, Hoot.
Big Train, Big Six, Big Ed, Fat.

I am bewitched by The Ultimate Baseball Book. I have read it all, but I suspect it will be years before I really finish reading it. And here is a suggestion for Daniel Okrent and Harris Lewine, who edited it with such loving care: when you issue the second edition some years hence, bring it up-to-date, sure, but keep what you have. This book can only get thicker, not better.