To 10-year-old Stanley Cohen in 1944, it was the names of the players that constituted baseball's initial appeal. "In my neighborhood," he writes, "everyone had names like Goldstein. Feldman, Geller and Cohen.... Who could even imagine someone named Arky Vaughan or Rip Sewell? Those were names!"
A quick study, as most bright 10-year-olds are when the price is right, Cohen memorized the lineups of every team in the major leagues overnight. The reward for his effort was the unbridled admiration of his buddies, who had ridiculed him only the day before for not even knowing who Stan Musial was.
Thus inducted, Cohen soon became a student of the game and a devoted Yankee fan, which, it turns out, aren't mutually exclusive pursuits, as those of us who have spent a lifetime hating the Yankees have thought. In his charming book, The Man in the Crowd (Random House, $13.50), Cohen almost wins us over to his side. One test of a writer is the ability to make you see things his way, at least while you are at his disposal. Cohen temporarily convinced me that it was indeed a magical moment when Chris Chambliss hit the ninth-inning home run that won the 1976 pennant for the Yankees. (At the time, however, I thought it was kind of a drag.)
As he grew older, Cohen discovered football and boxing and basketball—especially New York college basketball, in the days when it was the best in the land. He rejoiced in the fact that kids from New York City made up the City College team that won both the NCAA and NIT titles in 1950. "Without athletic scholarships," he writes, "without high-powered recruiting, without any inducements but the promise of an education, we had produced the best basketball team in the country." To his credit, having shared CCNY's triumph he felt obliged to share its disgrace when the 1951 basketball scandals exposed feet of clay. Vicarious glory carries with it the risk of vicarious shame. Some people never do acknowledge that. Cohen understood it and lived with it. Many years later he wrote a book about "the scandals." I haven't read it, but I suspect it's worthwhile.
The Man in the Crowd is subtitled "Confessions of a Sports Addict." I dislike jocular "confessions of titles, which seem to me unnecessarily laden with sauciness. This one was probably added by an editor ("We have to tell 'em what it's about, Stanley"), and it's especially inappropriate because Cohen strikes me as the kind of writer who, while he might lapse into sentimentality here and there, would rather dismantle his typewriter than stoop to any form of cuteness. In any case, a better and more elucidative subtitle would have been "Notes of a Complete New Yorker," because the book is in large part a hymn of praise to the city.
New York is the only American city Cohen's father, a Romanian immigrant, ever knew or wanted to know. It is the city where Cohen grew up and where he in turn raised his own son to be a faithful Yankee fan. And the author loves it with an undiluted passion which I envy, having divided my own affection among a number of cities.
The immigrant father's favorite anecdote, endlessly repeated, was of how he had seen his first baseball game—the Giants vs. the Cubs at the Polo Grounds—as a result of winning a newspaper limerick contest. "Imagine," he would say, "I had just learned to speak English, and here I won a poetry contest. What do you think of that?" Cohen, who always heard him out, thought a lot of that.
Finally, it must be noted that Cohen's love of sports, while unquestionably genuine, does have a few soft spots in it. For a period of several years, while occupied with other matters, he lost interest in watching games, he says. Not coincidentally, these were the very same several years when the Yankees were lousy. When the Yankees started to win again, however, he started watching again. Faithful fans of the White Sox and Indians and Tigers (forget the Cubs), accustomed to waiting a decade or more for a mere contender for a title, may be forgiven for questioning the true depth of his "addiction."
But no matter. It's a very nice book, well written and full of history for the young and memories for the more mature. You'll like it. If you're a New Yorker, you'll love it.