Baseball and Lesser Sports

Quotation is the only sure way of doing justice to Wilfrid Sheed’s prose: ”If you’re a city kid, crowds are the element you swim in. When they seem to thicken slightly, that means you’re at a ball game or riding the subway. When they thin, you’re having a quiet night at home. But at any size they don’t bother you much: They are the city equivalent of the farmer’s dog that slams you against the wall and pants in your face. Tiger is just being friendly.” By comparison, superlatives seem ungainly, but it does need to be said that Sheed is simply the wittiest writer we’ve got. He has the gift of making everyone else look heavy-handed and slow-footed, as did his hero, Muhammad Ali.

Which brings us to sports, the subject of Baseball and Lesser Sports, a highly miscellaneous collection of essays, journalism, and fragments. Not that the subject matters much, since Sheed, like A.J. Liebling, the Epicurean saint, can make you feel like a discriminating connoisseur of almost anything merely by serving it up with his own ironic gusto. But the book is mainly about baseball, and baseball is, of course, mainly about nostalgia. If the book had stage directions, they would read: Scene: an old ballpark, sometime in the 1940s. The summer of 1941 holds center stage: It was the summer that Sheed, a 9-year-old exile from wartime England, discovered baseball, with perfect timing — Joe DiMaggio had his 56-game hitting streak, Ted Williams hit .406, and the Brooklyn Dodgers, Sheed’s newly adopted team, made it to the World Series.

Most of Sheed’s other subjects here flourished in the same era: Hank Greenberg, sportswriters like Jimmy Cannon and Red Smith, and the venerable stoic Connie Mack, who owned and managed the Philadelphia A’s for half a century (”Born in the Lincoln Administration and still staggering through Eisenhower, he was like a tree with initials on it from the Garden of Eden”). The Garden of Eden is also represented by Shoeless Joe Jackson, who plays Adam. And there’s a shrewd appreciation of the best baseball fiction ever written, Ring Lardner’s 1914 You Know Me, Al. Excursions into more recent times are a little grudging, having to do with the Mets as a slightly depressing substitute for the Dodgers of Ebbets Field, the art of Yankee-hating, what’s wrong with Pete Rose, what’s wrong with the designated hitter rule, and what’s wrong with millions of dollars.

The only thing missing is a consolidated essay about how baseball came to be lodged so deeply in the national psyche and just what it’s doing there. Sheed keeps getting a piece of these questions without quite putting them away, like a batter fouling off fat pitches. Still, the book is never less than a pleasure to read, even if, like a certain reviewer, you haven’t paid much attention to sports since you were 18 and you were 18 well after the 1940s. B+

Baseball and Lesser Sports
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