Baseball: A Literary Anthology
by Nicholas Dawidoff
The Library of America, 721 pages, $35.00
The writer Barry Lopez has described the Eskimo concept of perlerorneq, an extreme wintertime depression that can drive sufferers to run half-naked out of their igloos, screaming into the noonday darkness, and devouring malamute scat. Baseball fans will know this bleak phenomenon by its more common name, the off-season—which, by virtue of a calendrical oddity no one has adequately explained, somehow lasts a little longer every year. The Library of America's indispensable new anthology may just be perlerorneq's only known antidote.
Flashbacks: "Ballpark Memories" (October 15, 1998)
As the historic 1998 season heads into its final days, here's a look back at some memorable baseball moments from The Atlantic's archives.
For make no mistake (as the most gaffe-prone man in the country is forever telling us)—this anthology is summer between hard covers. The editor, Nicholas Dawidoff, played some second base for Harvard, and his range is something to behold. He gives us the crooked World Series of 1919 not only from the Chicagoan Nelson Algren's perspective ("Every bleacher has-been, newspaper mediocrity and pulpit inanity seized the chance to regain his lost pride at the expense of seven of the finest athletes who ever hit into a double play") but also from that of the undersung writer James A. Maxwell, who at age seven refused to believe that his beloved Reds hadn't won it fair and square. And sure, Dawidoff gives us the black sportswriter Wendell Smith's contagious pride at Jackie Robinson's first minor-league game, but he gives us Amiri Baraka, too: "So out of the California laboratories of USC, a synthetic colored guy was imperfected and soon we would be trooping back into the holy see of racist approbation." (Not USC, in fact, but UCLA—as a footnote might've told us.)
The greater any second baseman's range, as any student of the game will tell you, the more errors he'll make on balls a lesser glove man might not even reach. So it is with Dawidoff. His collection has exactly one consistent flaw, but it's a humdinger: the book too often neglects cities other than New York except as straight men, sparring partners for the Yankees, the Giants, and the Dodgers to work out their heroic destinies against. As a hardened Red Sox fan, Dawidoff should've known better. He tries to inoculate himself against this charge in his otherwise beguiling introduction, pleading defensively that "the people whose business it is to make ballplayers interesting have tended to cluster in the nation's biggest city." Reasoning this circular would make a baseball look square. It's publishers who cluster in Manhattan; interesting writers can and do live anywhere. Dawidoff compounds his crime by suggesting that players in St. Louis, for example, "never had someone like Jimmy Breslin, Murray Kempton, Roger Angell, or Joel Oppenheimer to watch over them." Oh, yeah? A St. Louisan named David Carkeet wrote The Greatest Slump of All Time, a baseball novel so funny that audiobook manufacturers hesitate to record it for fear of vehicular liability. That it doesn't get a call-up from Dawidoff does little for our confidence in his knowledge of baseball writing outside the Northeast.