Sunday, June 24, 2007
A Brief History of America's Pastime
George Vescey's recent history of America's pastime is entitled simply "Baseball: A History of America's Favorite Game," and the book is part of the Modern Library Chronicles Series.
Limited (or perhaps freed) by the Series' insistence on brevity (Vescey's book is just 224 pages without footnotes), Vescey does not attempt to delivery the comprehensive, year-by-year, history of the game; nor, does he, like Bill James' Historical Baseball Abstract (which traces the game from its roots), treat each decade of baseball history evenly. Rather, Vescey choses a few themes and allows the narrative to follow.
One theme is Vescey's own boyhood idol: Stan Musial. (Of course, why Vescey -- a child of Brooklyn -- idolized an outfield who played a half a continent away in an era before television -- is probably a story for another day, and a longer book.) And related to Musial is another St. Louisian: George Sisler. Sisler appears throughout the book: as the first major 'discovery' of the young Branch Rickey; as a scout of, and mentor to, Jackie Robinson; then a further mentor to Roberto Clemente (another Rickey discovery); and finally, he appears through his children and grandchildren, who are present when Ichiro (Vescey's symbol of the internationalization of MLB) broke Sisler's single season hit record, of 257 (set in 1920).
Vescey touches on other issues: the 'creation myth' that placed Abner Doubleday (a cadet at West Point at the time) in Cooperstown 1839 when baseball was alleged invented; the role the A.G. Spalding played in codifying, then expanding, the game through his Spalding company, still located in Springfield, Mass., and still producing 'official' balls; and the role of Rickey in 'professionalizing' the front-office function. While the story will be familiar to the long-time fan, Vescey's writing, together with some (undoutedly) new anecdotes, will mean a pleasurable read.
Finally, a note on the cover photo, which is a compelling view from the upper deck of Yankee Stadium on October 4, 1961, the first game of the World Series that year against the Reds. The photo is both a moment in action -- a ball has been hit down the right field line (probably Elston Howard's homerun in the fourth) -- and a moment in time, with ads for Ballantine Beer, the monuments (and flag pole) still in play in center field, and of course, a Series game in daylight -- all harkening back to an earlier era. But it is a moment we can still almost touch.