Between books and BATS, the Boston Red Sox represent an environmentalist’s worst nightmare," writes Bill "Spaceman" Lee in his new The Little Red (Sox) Book. "Louisville Sluggers aside, several small forests have been destroyed to produce the extraordinary number of books written about the Boston Red Sox and their star-crossed history."
The Spaceman has said a lot of crazy things in his day, but that’s not one of them. Baseball, after all, is the most venerated of sports. It’s pastoral. It’s balletic. Its equal dependence on the striving of the individual and the synergy of the team makes it a model of the democratic ideal, the quintessential American game. From almost the first opening day, writers have been raving and rhapsodizing about it in purple prose.
And no baseball team has inspired more ink spillage than the Red Sox. Indeed, there’s something inherently literary about the Olde Towne Team’s century-plus history. Like Greek epics or Shakespearean tragedy, the twisted plotline has sinister intrigue (Harry Frazee’s depredations) and stouthearted heroism (the "Impossible Dream" team of ’67). There’s comedy (the inscrutable utterances of Spaceman himself) and tragedy (pretty much every autumn since 1918). And there’s romance: the visceral joyous heartache that’s the shared currency of Red Sox fandom.
So it’s not all that surprising that this season finds not one, not two, but nine new Sox-themed books. How poetic. Nine players, nine innings, nine chances to cheer and shout and wail and gnash teeth while strolling through the back pages of this storybook franchise.
BATTING FIRST: Mr. Bill Lee’s The Little Red (Sox) Book: A Revisionist Red Sox History (Triumph, 2003; $19.95), in which the leftist lefty takes it upon himself to pen a "revisionist history" of the team that luck forgot. Oh, if only the Sox saga could have unfolded like this! In his inimitable screwball style, the freaky philosopher spins his alternate worldview like a deadly change-up, stringing together quips, witticisms, bons mots, and bad puns into a crazy chronology that’s sometimes as sad, for all the what-ifs it conjures, as it is laugh-out-loud funny.
What if George Herman Ruth had never been sent packing to Gotham? In Spaceman’s bizarro world, the Bambino stays in Boston thanks to the shrewd maneuvering of Sox owner Joseph Kennedy (who’d procured the team from perfidious Frazee in 1919). He keeps the Sox at the top of the heap, of course, and the town that held Ruth to its bosom evolves accordingly, blossoming into the financial and cultural engine of the world while New York City shrivels into a pathetic husk.
Meanwhile, Ted Williams is spared from sacrificing the best years of his career in World War II when, in a plot hatched by President Roosevelt and Sox-catcher-cum-CIA-spook Moe Berg, Adolf Hitler is invited to the USA and treated to a Fenway double-header. As he throws out the ceremonial first pitch, Teddy Ballgame himself whales a line drive into Der Führer’s face, killing him instantly. WILL AMERICA LET NAZIS FLOURISH? asks the headline of the next day’s Boston Patriot. NUMBER NINE TO SWINE FROM RHEIN: "NEIN!"
Sometimes, Lee’s daydreaming assumes an unexpected poignancy. What if, for example, the famous "tryout" grudgingly given to Jackie Robinson in 1945 ended with him donning a Red Sox uniform instead of being ignominiously heckled from the field — thus making Boston the first team to break the color line, not the last, and maybe even setting a different course for the city’s famously fractious race relations? One can only imagine the untold titles that might have been won with Robinson and Ted Williams powering the team. "What can you say about a team that would pass up on a chance to sign Jackie Robinson?" Lee laments. "Well, you can say they were stupid. Or you can say they were very, very stupid. Or you can say they were very, very stupid ... and racist. How stupid and racist were they? So stupid that they were, apparently, waiting for a player of Pumpsie Green’s caliber to arrive."
For all the whimpering about the Curse of the Bambino, Lee reminds us, sometimes the Sox organization has no one but itself to blame. His book is chock full of chucklers. But as he tries to right every Red Sox wrong, from tragic Tony C. to bad-luck Bill Buckner to Bucky Fuckin’ Dent, sometimes we laugh to keep from crying.
Baseball needs more Bill Lees, especially in these days of millionaire ballplayers who "come to camp with a financial adviser and ... read the stock-market page before the sports pages." (As Rocky Bridges put it, way back in 1970.) But while the Roman Catholic/Zen Buddhist/anarchist bolshevik/marijuana-sprinkled-buckwheat-cake connoisseur Bill Lee is indisputably one of the game’s true characters, his fellow left-hander Mickey McDermott, who pitched for the Sox from 1948 through 1953, was his progenitor. What is it about southpaws? In A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Cooperstown (Triumph, 2003; $24.95), coulda-been contender McDermott reflects back riotously on his life on and off the pitcher’s mound.
Signed into the Sox farm system at 17, McDermott threw three no-hitters in the minors before reaching the big leagues at age 19. The baby-faced beanpole’s blistering speed (control, alas, was a different issue) had some casting him as the next Bob Feller. But despite his auspicious start, a hankering for whiskey, women, and song (he spent nights crooning in the now-defunct Steuben’s, near Boston Common) proved to be McDermott’s undoing before long.
If McDermott lost his lethal left arm, he kept his ebullient personality and devilish sense of humor. It says a lot that a player as brooding and self-disciplined as Ted Williams would take to slipshod, happy-go-lucky McDermott like an older brother. But reading the anecdotes co-author Howard Eisenberg helped put on paper, one can see why. True to his Irish surname, McDermott knows how to spin a yarn, and this rollicking rake’s progress is full of ’em. Whether he’s being jokingly instructed by Williams to bean Joe DiMaggio with his deadly fastball ("Break his arm") or told in no uncertain terms by his best friend, man-mountain first baseman Walt Dropo, to stop freeloading on his couch (Dropo dropped $500 to have the Fenway scoreboard spell it out: MICKEY, GO HOME), Cooperstown is a spirited evocation of baseball’s golden age, a time when players had as much fun on the field as they did off it.
Even after his career ended in mediocrity, McDermott’s drinking sessions with another Mickey (Mantle) and soused socializing with Kerouac, Rocky Marciano, and Frank Sinatra (whose bodyguards once almost "Swiss-cheesed" him after he spooked Ol’ Blue Eyes with a drunken from-behind bear hug) ensured that his life, if sometimes boorish, was never boring. But after a long fallow period marked by days-long benders, McDermott bottomed out, suffering a heart attack and dying — twice — on the table during an emergency triple bypass. But he pulled through. And wouldn’t you know it? He won a cool $7 million from the Arizona lottery soon after. McDermott’s pitching potential may have been wasted, but his life has not been. As he told this writer (see "A Pitcher Speaks," This Just In, May 9), "I’ve had a lotta fun. Regrets, I’ve had a few. But too few to remember."
For several seasons, Mickey McDermott shared a Red Sox dugout with some of the most beloved players in the team’s history. There was Ted Williams, of course, towering and glowering and utterly overwhelming. There was Dom DiMaggio, the small, bespectacled "Little Professor" — so different from his phenomenally gifted brother — who used his acute intelligence to compensate for his physical limitations. Ted’s pal Bobby Doerr, decent, square-jawed, a little square, had played with Williams since they were skinny teenagers in the Pacific Coast Leagues. (Now they’re in Cooperstown together.) There was Johnny Pesky, who started as a clubhouse boy, but soon enough made the team; he’s employed by the Red Sox to this day. David Halberstam’s The Teammates (Hyperion, 2003; $22.95) is an affectionate, affecting portrait of the men Williams called, simply, "my guys."
In October 2001, Ted was fading fast. So DiMaggio and Pesky resolved to see their teammate and friend of more than 60 years one last time. (Doerr, tending to his stroke-stricken wife, couldn’t make the trip.) Wary of flying so soon after September 11, the two old men — 85 and 82, respectively — set out, with Boston comedian Dick Flavin ("Teddy at the Bat") sharing the driving, from DiMaggio’s home in Marion, navigating the 1300 miles to Florida. The whole way down, Halberstam writes, they never once listened to the radio. There was just too much to talk about, too many memories to relive.
Halberstam, who portrayed these four so vibrantly in his magisterial remembrance of the 1949 Sox-Yankees pennant race, Summer of ’49 (Perennial, 2002), visits them again in the autumn of their years. Weaving Halberstam’s reportage with the players’ own clear-eyed reminiscences about their salad days, The Teammates is a lyrical meditation on an enduring and endearing friendship. These men stayed close friends for six decades. It’s hard imagine today’s millionaire commodities, the free-agents who would trade allegiances in a heartbeat for the right price, doing the same. This slim volume is an elegy for a vanished age.
When DiMaggio and Pesky finally reach Hernando, Florida, they find their old friend, once indestructible, now frail and wheelchair bound. But Ted’s a team player till the end. Just try not to get a catch in your throat when DiMaggio sings "Me and My Shadow" and Ted claps happily and says, "Dommy, Dommy, you did really well!"
The weird and sad spectacle of Ted’s children squabbling over his body was an unseemly coda to an extraordinary existence. Lawrence Baldassaro’s Ted Williams: Reflections on a Splendid Life (Northeastern University, 2003; $20) is a welcome corrective. It offers a chronological compendium of writings about a man whose bona fides were impeccable: the last man to hit .400, fighter pilot in two wars, philanthropist, fisherman nonpareil. Of course, Ted’s simmering feud with "the Knights of the Keyboard" is well-known, and sportswriters were often all too happy to joust back. No surprise, then, that not all these selections are hagiographies. Nor should they be. But this collection, with works from writers like Red Smith, Peter Gammons, and John Updike, goes some way toward fashioning a complete view of a complex character who was single-minded in his pursuit of perfection — and who’d attained mythic status long before his death.
Respected baseball historian Glen Stout’s Impossible Dreams: A Red Sox Collection (Houghton Mifflin, 2003; $13) is another omnibus compendium of sports writing. Dave "Colonel" Egan, Ring Lardner, Jimmy Breslin, Tony Massarotti, Dan Shaughnessy — Stout’s corker collects them all. The impeccable selections start in 1901, with the announcement of a new team for the new American League (RIVAL BASEBALL NINE FOR BOSTON, from the Boston Post) and ends in 2002, with Stout’s own rousing encomium, "Looking for Ted Williams," from Boston Baseball. In between is the entire Red Sox story, straight from rapid-fire Remingtons of the Boston daily sportswriters — who, Stout writes, constitute what "may well be the oldest and best tradition of baseball writing in the country."
The book is an indispensable summation of the Red Sox experience, a century’s worth of snapshots. There are seminal columns like Ray Fitzgerald’s famous and feverish Game Six postmortem, THE BEST GAME EVER! (from the October 22, 1975, Boston Globe), in which he writes, "Call it off. Call the seventh game off. Let the World Series stand this way, three games for the Cincinnati Reds and three for the Boston Red Sox.... How can there be a topper for what went on last night?" There are forgotten historical footnotes like Harold Kaese’s TED’S LONGEST HOMER PIERCES STRAW HAT ON HEAD 450 FEET AWAY, from the June 19, 1946, Globe, in which Kaese interviews the Albany engineer whose haberdashery was mangled in the same spot where a red seat (#21 in Row 37 of Section 42) sits to this day. There are field studies, like OPENING DAY AT FENWAy, George Kimball’s viciously funny Phoenix article from 1971, in which, after some time spent away from the game with the counterculture, he returns to the bleachers of his youth and finds their inhabitants unrecognizable. There are quirky clippings like George Frazier’s TIBIALIBUS RUBRIS XV, EBORACUM NOVUM V, which appeared on the front page of the April 7, 1973, Boston Globe entirely in Latin.
Then there are moving, personal essays like Herald columnist Steve Buckley’s piece for Yankee magazine, "A Postcard from My Brother," in which a chance glimpse at a bar-wall photo of celebratory mayhem following the clinching of the ’67 pennant, "a framed burst of energy" from the team’s impossible dream, reveals the author’s late brother, Paul — "forever 14 years old ... forever happy, and the Red Sox are forever the best team in the American League."
That essay is a pitch-perfect meditation on the deeply personal resonances of being a baseball fan. Doug Hornig’s book The Boys of October: How the 1975 Boston Red Sox Embodied Baseball’s Ideals — and Restored Our Spirits (Contemporary, 2003; $24.95) is another. Best known as a mystery novelist, Hornig ruminates on the transformative power of the game, seeing the ’75 series as a balm to Boston (in the throes of the busing crisis) and the nation at large (in the doldrums thanks to Watergate, a Vietnam hangover, the OPEC oil embargo, and widespread economic malaise). Hornig himself, unemployed and going through a divorce, wasn’t much better off.
But for 12 days, he and the nation had something else to think about when Cincinnati’s overpowering Big Red Machine went up against Boston’s ragtag group of underdogs, who gave them the fight of their lives. The teams couldn’t be more different. Just look at their names. "Whereas Cincinnati fielded a bunch of guys named Johnny and Joe and Pete and George," he writes, "Boston countered with Pudge and Yaz, Carbs and Willow, Señor and the Spaceman." Hornig tracked down and interviewed most of the guys, and their remembrances are woven into with his own personal reflections as he relives the most classic of Fall Classics, game by game.
Baseball writing always runs the risk of being way too worshipful, of clouding the essence of the thing — a game, after all — with a fog of mythic foofaraw. But it’s also true that every so often, on personal and societal levels, it transcends, becoming much more than the sum of its plays. The ’75 series did. And it’s to Hornig’s credit that he so vividly captures the thrilling saga without falling victim to bathos.
For another passionate take on the same series, try Tom Adelman’s thrillingly told The Long Ball: The Summer of ’75 — Spaceman, Catfish, Charlie Hustle, and the Greatest World Series Ever Played (Little Brown, 2003; $24.95). Adelman — who’s better known, in the guise of his doppelgänger, Camden Joy, as one of music criticism’s most passionate and wildly inventive voices — tackles not just that heart-stopping series, but the whole of the 1975 season, which he posits as the critical juncture in baseball. The end of the reserve clause and the beginning of free agency that year fundamentally altered the game, he argues, heralding constantly shifting allegiances and sending salaries ever further skyward. Plus, it was just one hell of a season, with a cast of characters a novelist might imagine. And a novelist’s touch is what Adelman’s brings to the story. His writerly virtuosity and imagistic ingenuity, and the creative license he takes in reconstructing characters’ interior monologues make his novelistic reimagining of that crazy summer one for the ages. (For a full review, see "Perfect Game," Arts, April 3.)
For all the woulda-coulda-shoulda tragedy of 1975 (and 1946 and 1967 and 1986), it’s easy to forget that the very first World Series was held in Boston — and that the very first World Series was won by Boston. Boston Globe sports columnist Bob Ryan revivifies that halcyon autumn in his breezy book When Boston Won the World Series: A Chronicle of Boston’s Victory in the First Modern World Series of 1903 (Running Press, 2003; $18.95).
"Both teams are in the pink of condition, and a battle royale may be looked for," wrote legendary Globe sportswriter Tim Murnane as Game One between the National League’s Pittsburg (no "h" in those days) Pirates and the Boston Americans (they wouldn’t be the Red Sox until 1907) got under way at the Huntington Avenue grounds. "For three years the friends of the National and American leagues have longed to see the champions come together, but it was reserved for Boston to have the honor and pleasure of witnessing the first game."
Ryan reanimates these faded, sepia-toned photographs, transporting us back to a time when big Cy Young loomed large on the mound, Honus Wagner swung hard, and the fans — especially the "Royal Rooters," led by garrulous, mustachioed barkeep Michael "Nuf Ced" McGreevey — could unnerve the opposition with ceaseless refrains of Boston’s anthem, "Tessie." As the fans spill out onto the field in exultant victory, Ryan reminds us of how the thrill of victory tasted so long ago. And will taste again. Some day.
In the meantime, even the Fenway gardener gets a book deal these days. In David R. Mellor’s The Lawn Bible: How to Keep it Green, Groomed, and Growing Every Season of the Year (Hyperion, 2003; $16.95) the ballpark’s master groundskeeper offers advice on keeping your front yard as verdant as Fenway’s outfield. Mellor, who says his job "is the next best thing to actually playing in the big leagues," fills his book with tips on how to beat weeds, "how to think like a lawn," and how best to approach the subtle artistry of mowing (no instructions, alas, on how to carve the famous Red Sox logo).
Green lawns, after all, are nice things to have. Not least because they remind one of "the wild vernal hopes that leap every year, jonquil-like, in the hearts of [Red Sox] followers," as Roger Angell so eloquently writes in "The Flowering and Deflowering of New England," a 1967 New Yorker article included in Impossible Dreams. Angell contends that while it may be not be reasonable to say, April after April, that this is the year, "the lifelong Red Sox fan is not a reasonable man. In him is the perpetual memory of a dozen seasons when the best of hopes went for nothing, so why is he to believe that the worst of prospects may suddenly reward his fealty?"
Mike Miliard can be reached at mmiliard[a]phx.com