A Day to Exhale, A Chance to Revive a Good Old Book

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Hi all.  After the surrealistic nuttiness of yesterday’s trade deadline activity, and with a 4-game Yankees-Red Sox series in the offing, I’m stepping back from my usual format.  I don’t normally review baseball books as a part of this blog but over the past couple of weeks I’ve been reading one of the better books on the subject I can remember.

The book in question is called “Red Smith on Baseball: The Game’s Greatest Writer on the Game’s Greatest Years.”  The book is well-named.  It is a collection of Smith’s columns starting in 1945 and finishing just before his death in 1982.  When he began writing, baseball was a much different game than it is today.  His first stories were about the players MLB had to employ during World War II when players by the hundreds were called (or enlisted voluntarily like Bob Feller) to serve Uncle Sam. Smith saw the end of Joe DiMaggio’s career and the beginning of Mickey Mantle’s tenure.  The game in the forties still largely depended on closely-played games where a team played for a single run at a time.  It was a regional affair in the 1940’s.  Television was a project that had been put in moth balls because of World War II and took a couple of years to figure out how to cover baseball.  Even when it did (sort of) the fans got one game a week, plus the All-Star game and the World Series. Smith writes about the early TV efforts and writes a piece lambasting the radio broadcasters calling the game in 1955. I wrote an earlier piece about that column in its own right.  He wrote of the heroes-Jackie Robinson, Stan Musial and more.  He wrote of the villains-Curt Flood, Marvin Miller and Charlie Finley in particular.

While Smith’s writing was always interesting, he was never better than when a player had died and needed to be memorialized.  Early In this book we find a story about the funeral of Walter Johnson, “The Big Train.”  He would have won more games than Cy Young if his teams scored more than 1 run a game for him.  The editor of this book gives us two obituaries for Babe Ruth-one immediately following his death and another 25 years later as Henry Aaron was trying to break the Babe’s home run record of 714.  He correctly predicted a man would hit 70 home runs, only failing to mention that steroids would be needed to accomplish the unthinkable.  In the book you’ll find a 1965 obituary for Pepper Martin of the Cardinals, aka “The Wild Horse of the Osage.”  If baseball had a better nickname I’d like to hear it. Then in 1978, the old Yankees manager Joe McCarthy died at 90.  Smith’s touching obit for “Marse Joe” as McCarthy was called by the sportswriters appears near the end of this volume. If you’ve ever had to write an obituary, I don’t envy you.  They’re a tough job particularly if you had strong feelings for the deceased.  Even this modest blog has had to say good-bye to Yogi Berra, Roy Halladay and for me the most painful of all, broadcaster Dick Enberg.  Smith wrote his obits with a style that can’t be copied.

His famous piece about the playoff game of October 3, 1951 is here, along with pieces from the World Series especially in the 1950’s when ball players were working stiffs.  At Smith’s peak, a player still had to work during the offseason, which would be unthinkable in this era of players making as much as $20 million a year.  Smith detested the DH and clearly wouldn’t like today’s players with their uppercut swings and their habit of striking out 150 to 200 times a year and beyond.  This book is for somebody who lived through the years Smith describes, or somebody with a liking for baseball history who wants to read it as if he were being transported to the scene.

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