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Thirty years ago next month, baseball belatedly entered the modern age with the publication of Jim Bouton's Ball Four: My Life and Hard Times Throwing the Knuckleball in the Big Leagues. Like many milestones, Ball Four didn't cause change so much as it signaled it--in society and in sports. Rereading the book this spring to see if it endured as a classic, I was less surprised at how well it stood up than I was at how almost quaint and innocent this once infamously outrageous work--a tell-all diary of the 1969 season, edited by sportswriter Leonard Shecter--now seemed.

Ball Four is funny, and like Ring Lardner's You Know Me Al, its humor is its main selling point for today's reader. But it also seems poised on a fulcrum of history. The Vietnam war, the sexual revolution, the struggle of individuality versus conformity, the power of unionization in athletics, the explosion in sports marketing, even interracial adoption: all these subjects bursting onto the American scene worm their way into the text, because Bouton doesn't just tell all about baseball, he tells all about everything. Last year Ball Four was named one of the books of the century by the New York City Public Library--and justifiably so, I'd say, because it captures a turbulent time and makes points that resonate especially well with sports fans but don't resonate solely with sports fans. This time I found myself particularly liking the quiet scenes away from the game: the conversations between Bouton and his roommates, the days off with his family--as when he renames Kyong Jo, his adopted Korean son, David. Ball Four today looks back to a time when sports and society were just becoming cognizant of their impact on one another. The book is funny and poignant, but it also occupies a position in which nothing that came after it was the same as what had come before.

My guess is that in some ways much has changed for baseball players since Ball Four was published, and in other ways hardly anything has. Their economic standing has certainly improved, to say the least. The book opens with Bouton--a former pitching standout and World Series hero with the New York Yankees who'd fallen on hard times after suffering a sore arm--almost boasting about how he weaseled a salary of $22,000 out of the expansion Seattle Pilots. He joins the 1969 work stoppage during spring training as Marvin Miller begins flexing the muscles of the players' union, but he hardly does so on principle, citing family matters as his excuse for failing to report on time. (Even so, he documents the principled stand of Lou Piniella, who risked his goodwill with the Pilots when he honored the strike and was soon traded to the Kansas City Royals, where he won the rookie of the year award; funny how names familiar even today jump out of the book here and there.) Later there's what now seems a truly comical scene as the players discuss the minimum salary at a team meeting.

"I suggested that if you apply the standard-of-living index to the base of $7,000 that was set up eleven years ago you come up with about $14 or $15,000 as a minimum instead of the present $10,000. So somebody said, 'Why not $20,000?' and everybody broke up laughing. But when you really think about it, $20,000 is not out of line at all. Consider how hard it is to make a big-league club. If only the same proportion of the population were accepted as lawyers, the going starting salary would be a lot higher. When you overcome odds of better than 10,000 to 1 you ought to collect big."

Today, of course, the minimum salary is $200,000 and the average salary over $1 million. Even so, I think certain aspects of a player's life aren't much different. The locker room remains a bawdy male bastion, and while it's hard to imagine today's millionaire players capering across a hotel roof on a night of "beaver shooting" (i.e., behaving as Peeping Toms, which was one of the most offensive revelations about big leaguers when the book was first published), no doubt many of the other sexual escapades described in Ball Four are still practiced. While I would hope that the situation of unconventional players like Bouton, Mike Marshall, and Steve Hovley is better today, I'm not sure that intellectual athletes aren't still considered freaks by their more instinctive colleagues.

Ball Four was truly revolutionary in the way it destroyed the myth of the sports hero and turned athletes back into human beings. This, it seems to me, is the essential difference between the sports world before Ball Four and after it. The transition was under way when the book was published; for instance, in Muhammad Ali's imposing his religious beliefs on sports and the selective service system by refusing the deal offered sports heroes of previous generations like Joe Louis--easy duty in return for army service. But Bouton truly "tore the cover off" the old-school locker-room mantra that "what you say here, what you see here, what you do here, and what you hear here, let it stay here." He opened a Pandora's box. Better the truth than the ready-made heroes and legends of yesteryear. We can never go back to that age of innocence.

Readers can revisit that era, however, in Red Smith on Baseball: The Game's Greatest Writer on the Game's Greatest Years, an excellent new collection put out by Chicago's own Ivan R. Dee. To be fair to Smith, the longtime New York City sports columnist, he doesn't belong with the Grantland Rice prose-poem generation of sports-page hero-worshipers. His writing was never less than clearheaded, and it was sometimes farseeing. Smith was writing about the basic injustice of baseball's reserve clause--the regulation binding a player to a team for life that was abolished in the 70s--20 years before Bouton. But Smith was a writer content, for the most part, to concentrate on the field and let pass what the players did off it. His columns today seem at once quaint and somehow contemporary--in a reserved, consciously withdrawn sense. If he limited his vision to what could be seen from the press box, he wrote with such simplicity and precision that today his columns still etch that long-gone sports scene. Ball Four was a triumph of subject matter, of taboo topics addressed full in the face; Red Smith on Baseball is a triumph of style, of good writing that preserves the ephemeral.

In his life and in his work, I think Smith was heavily influenced not by other writers but by the athletes he covered, and one in particular--Joe DiMaggio. Smith witnessed DiMaggio's greatest years in the 30s and 40s, and the qualities he praised in DiMaggio the athlete--elegance, economy, grace--are in his writing. "Sometimes a fellow gets a little tired of writing about DiMaggio," Smith once wrote; "a fellow thinks, 'there must be some other ball player in the world worth mentioning.' But there isn't really, not worth mentioning in the same breath with Joe DiMaggio." Look at how he skirts hero worship, thanks to his own natural restraint. He's more effective when he tries to put words to DiMaggio's unique qualities. Smith describes DiMaggio making one catch "palm up like a landlord taking a pay-off under the table," and another "like a well-fed banquet guest picking his teeth," establishing DiMaggio's playing persona of proud near-insouciance.

Smith wrote like that same guest, tossing off bons mots amid the clattering keys of the precomputer press box, and the columns contained in On Baseball--which cover 40 years, from his prime with the Herald Tribune in the 40s to his twilight at the Times in the early 80s--give abundant evidence of his offhand mastery. Mickey Mantle strikes out and then "returned to the dugout regarding his own toes as though he'd never seen them before." Yankees manager Casey Stengel, a former dental student, pulls pitcher Bob Turley "like a loose tooth." Curt Flood, infamously misjudging a fly ball in the seventh game of the 1968 World Series, "skidded like a hog on ice." Most baseball brouhahas are "like a hair-pull in a sorority house."

Smith devoted himself to New York baseball because that's where he worked and that's where the Yankees, Giants, and Brooklyn Dodgers were dominating the game in the 40s and 50s, but he brought his piercing eye to Chicago now and then. A 1952 column on the Cubs puts its finger on what continues to be their key genetic flaw when Smith quotes someone saying, "They faint at the sight of blood." He writes of the "pear-shaped tones of Jack Brickhouse" (a lovely mix of the visual with the aural), and "Dearborn Massacre," his dispatch on the White Sox' loss in the final game of the 1959 World Series, is erudite, eloquent, and definitive.

I could take issue with the book's subtitle, The Game's Greatest Writer on the Game's Greatest Years, which plays the nostalgia card rather heavily on both counts. Roger Angell is a better baseball writer, and the argument about whether the 40s and 50s constituted baseball's golden era is subjective at best. Yet Smith himself attributed baseball's appeal to nostalgia--to men remembering their boyhood playing days--so in a way he deserves what he gets when he's marketed as a nostalgic. His work was apparently strongest and most consistent in the middle decades of the century; at least the best columns come from the 40s and 50s and make up most of the book. He never captured Reggie Jackson in the mind's eye as well as he did DiMaggio. (Of Jackson's three-homer game in the finale of the 1977 Series, Smith can't do better than the line "Shakespeare wouldn't attempt a curtain scene like that if he were plastered.") And the last column, from 1981, is a recitation of Stengel's testimony before Congress on the reserve clause, a fairly famous tape now commonly found on compact disc, where it benefits from Stengel's own comic delivery and a punch line provided by Mantle at the end. Maybe Smith couldn't have foreseen a day when a digital medium would preserve Stengelese far better than he could put it on a page. Yet other, more intangible substances--the quality of greatness in the way a certain athlete goes about his business--are captured by Smith in a way not even newsreels equal. That is what makes his writing last, and that is how those athletes endure today.


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