"Baseball Tales" is a book that is confused about what it wants to be. A grizzled veteran slamming a ball into the gap, the ball bouncing on one hop to ricochet off the top of the outfield fence? Stand-up double! Or a fleet-footed sinewy speedster, 80 feet of blur at the pitch, sliding through the dust, hooking an appendage around second base? Safe!
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Given prominence on the cover is the name Terry Heffernan, a widely published still life commercial photographer. Heffernan is the first photographer given access to the displays and archives of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Pictures of equipment—balls, catcher's masks, bats—uniforms, scorecards, gum and tobacco cards, pins, etc., are scattered throughout the book. Individual items are identified only on an Illustrations page at the beginning of the book. It quickly becomes tiresome to flip back-and-forth to identify a given object. Each story is led with a picture of a tobacco or gum card of years gone by. These really help to set the tone of the 'good old days' when reading the stories.
Unfortunately, the pictures are static and simply capture nothing of the moment or man they represent. Interestingly, there are no portraits, other than the figures represented on the various cards. Formally posed, in tight view, and highly contrasted in light and shadow they simply underwhelm this reader. 'Gee, that's neat' is about the strongest reaction I had to any of the pictures.
Lawrence S. Ritter pens the Introduction to the book. He notes that no other sport enjoys the literary tradition that baseball claims. He notes that as long as fathers take their sons to baseball games, and mothers take their daughters, there will always be "nostalgic memories" that bind this generation of fans to those that came before. And those still to come.
A short one page Contributors section lists a short biography of each author and the place of this particular story in their work.
"How I Got My Nickname" by W.P. Kinsella, first published in 1984, is Kinsella's tongue-in-cheek reminiscence of a diabetic high school boy pinch-hitting in the late-season pennant drive of the 1951 New York Giants.
Visiting the Polo Grounds hours before the start of that day's game, W. P. brazenly asks manager Leo Durocher if he might "...take a little batting practice." Durocher humors the young man by granting his request. Surprising all with his hitting ability ("I've never played in my life. But I have a photographic memory. I just watch how different players hold their bat, how they stand. I try to emulate Enos Slaughter and Joe Di Maggio.") he improbably earns a spot as a pinch-hitter on the team. He can't play a regular position because he is, due to his diabetes, quick to bruise and slow to heal. And because he "...never paid much attention to the fielders."
Just as improbable as a major league walk-on high school age pinch-hitter are 'classics'-reading, intellectual team mates who speak Latin, argue whether "The Great Gatsby" is an allegory, and have a panel discussion of "Catcher In the Rye" during an 8 hour train ride to St. Louis.
Like many literary heroes, W. P.'s attempt to 'save the day' falls far short of what is required. Only then does he "...suddenly (know) why I was really here." To enable the real hero to execute the required deed. In aiding that hero, we learn 'how he got his nickname.' And we wonder how he knew...
Convincingly written, you will wonder if it really is true.
"You Could Look It Up" by James Thurber, published in 1942, fathered a catch phrase of many baseball players (esp. Casey Stengel), commentators and fans.
Thurber brings his distinctive style to bear on the story of a baseball team with their collected nerves stretched tighter than the head on a snare drum. The dreams of a thirty-five inch tall ballplayer/midget thwart the best laid plans of the manager. But the 'craziness' of the unexpected makes the 'dull' of the expected much easier to accomplish. The writing of the climactic scene makes you feel you are there on the field in the middle of the hullabaloo.
Indeed Bill Veeck, owner of the St Louis Browns, must have 'looked it up'. In August of 1951 he signed and sent to the plate a forty three inch short midget named Eddie Gaedal to the plate. He promptly walked on four pitches. Major League baseball banned Eddie two days later from ever reprising his performance.
When the inherent beauty and grace of playing baseball are over-interpreted to the point that style defeats function, that beauty and grace disappear like a ripple on the surface of a pond. "The Rollicking God" by Nunnally Johnson, published in, 1924 finds Smack Riley, star player of the Grays, discovered by a pretentious sportswriter who imagines his most ordinary actions to be beautiful acts of nature. So beautiful that he would rather see Smack strike out than another player hit safely.
Smack is eventually drawn into this fantasy world of art and beauty both in the baseball field and on the theater stage. His on-field performance suffers, not unexpectedly. Until the "unaesthetic thing" that he witnesses on the baseball field paralyzes him and his skills. Will he finally realize what is art and what is performance? And the rewards of each?
A thoughtful story, particularly after reading any baseball 'piece' that babbles on about the 'beauty and grace' of the game.
Edna Ferber brings a feminine (not feminist!) view of the game of baseball to her story of the "Bush League Hero" published circa 1910.
Her story is populated with women enthralled with the idea of their man being a baseball man. "Any man who can look handsome in a dirty baseball suit is an Adonis."
Ferber's story is from an age when young ladies respected the wishes of their fathers and did not "...run the streets with a ball player." Young Ivy Keller, home for the summer from "Miss Shont's select school for young ladies" is frightfully bored by mid-June. Introduced to the game of baseball by her father as a distraction from her boredom, young Ivy quickly becomes smitten by a ball player.
Chancing to meet this ball player when invited to a dinner at the player's boarding house, young Ivy and Rudie become fast acquaintances. Yet when Rudie wants to "talk about us" Ivy replies "Us? Well, you're baseball, aren't you?"
Can her father find some way to make Ivy understand her infatuation? Can parents ever understand their child's loves? Lets just say that Mr. Keller finds a clever way for Ivy to show herself her true feelings. A clever story of young love and infatuation wrapped around a baseball core.
"Baseball Hattie", published in 1936 by Damon Runyon, is a story of love, greed, corruption and self-protection. An older Hattie is noted to be in the ballpark one night by an old acquaintance. He notices her quiet manner and compares her behavior now to that twenty years earlier when our story first began.
A fan that often traveled to watch the team, she rescued a young pitcher nick-named 'Haystack' from the clutches of an angry Phillie mob. From that chance encounter is born "...a wonderful romance...no doubt love at first sight..."
One effect of this relationship is the young pitcher Haystack "begins burning up the league with his pitching..." But all is not roses, for it seems that Hattie runs a board and room house "...that in the first place, is not a boarding and rooming house, and in the second place that the ladies and gentlemen who room and board there are by no means ladies and gentlemen, and especially ladies."
Hattie is forced to leave the young pitcher alone and Haystack proceeds to tear up the league, winning game after game. Unfortunately he also feeds his hunger for gambling and other unsavory activities. Eventually he and Hattie get married in the off-season, she giving up her 'business' and he promising to give up his vices.
Offered the chance to throw a game for some big money, Haystack is willing to listen while Hattie, pregnant with child, will hear nothing of it. She will not have the future of herself and her child ruined by a cheating husband and father. Indeed she has dreams of a son playing in the big leagues.
Confronted by a gambler and her husband in their home, ready to consummate a rotten deal, Hattie takes drastic action. One is shot, the other runs scared. But who is saved, who is changed, who is done, who has a future? And why is Hattie sitting in a ball park twenty years later?
A great story of greed and lust and protecting the future it will leave you thinking of accidents and plans, love and hate, rage and silent stolidity. Not to be missed...or forgotten.
— The Bottom Line —
"Baseball Tales" has great value as a collection of short stories, particularly if these selections are missing from your collection. Highly recommended for the teenage or older reader who has any interest in baseball. Indeed Ferber's and Runyon's stories are highly moving for any reader. Each of these five is indeed a classic in its own right. Taken as a whole, theses five tales make a great collection.
"Baseball Tales" has little value as a collection of pictures. While the objects are interesting they have no lasting impact on the reader. I believe baseball photography is about the faces and bodies and actions of the players that are truly the game.
"Just the facts, ma'am"
Title: Baseball Tales
Author: Collection of short stories
Publisher: Viking Studio Books
Copyright: Fly Productions, 1993
Pages: 100, Hardcover
ISBN #: 0-670-84700-3
Ages recommended: Teen through adult
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