By Daniel Wilcock
Book review: ‘Baseball: A History of America’s Favorite Game’ George Vecsey (2006, Modern Library, $14)
“Brevity is the soul of wit”—William Shakespeare
A simple idea runs through much of literary history: concise writing is harder, but better. Attributed to a wide range of writers, from Cicero to Mark Twain, this concept is best exemplified by Lincoln’s Gettysburg address.
For the last few decades, baseball has inspired a steady stream of 700-page tomes, many of which focus exhaustively on a single player or season. George Vecsey’s 2006 book Baseball boils the lot down to a scant 200-some-odd page collection of editorial-style vignettes.
Vecsey, a New York Times columnist, doesn’t hide his opinions. He grew up a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, though he adores their nemesis Stan ‘The Man’ Musial—about whom he recently wrote a 400-page biography. He considers the steroid-ball of the 90s and early 00s a catastrophe, but still has admires grudgingly the villains (erstwhile heroes) of the era.
Despite his love for the Brooklyn Dodgers and Musial, it’s Babe Ruth who for Vecsey personifies baseball. Here’s part of his paean to the Great Bambino:
“Babe Ruth saved baseball—and saves it still, truth be told. With Barry Bonds and other latter-day sluggers permanently tainted by steroid suspicions, the good old Babe looks better and better.
Ruth was not only the greatest player in the history of the game but he was also a rollicking, likable, outsized character who arrived at precisely the right moment. He dominated the nation during a decade devoted to change (women gained the right to vote in 1920) and avoidance (Prohibition was enacted that very same year, and promptly bypassed by a huge swath of the country). Who better to personify this coming-of-age decade, the Roaring Twenties, than a barrel-chested, pigeon-toed hedonist known as the Babe.”
If you like the above passage, its commentary rendered elegantly from a 10,000-foot vantage point, you’ll probably like the rest of the book. I certainly did. Just as the Gettysburg Address stood in contrast to the two-hour oration that preceded it, this short book is a keeper among baseball books.
I say it each winter: Can’t wait until April.