Sunday, April 5, 2015

Turn, Turn, Turn

In the most depressing movie ever made, It's a Wonderful Life (1946), the town slattern one night asks the tragically upstanding hero/Dupe of the Entire Universe George Bailey, "Don't you ever get tired of just reading about things, Georgie?" I won't bother with what exactly he says—it involves nocturnal mountain climbing and a green pool—but the import of it is yes, yes, dagnabit, he does get tired of just reading about things and there are things he'd like to... like to... well, like to do! Such as wade in a presumably algae-clotted pool in the middle of the night--not that you could see it was green then, mind you.

Me, I'm usually pretty happy reading. (There are some ways in which I am probably more like George Bailey, though my best friend isn't The Devil. Usually.)

Every time this guy shows up, things go to hell for George.
I do a lot of reading for my day job, but overall I don't do as much of it as I would like. Which is why it was a pleasant surprise to realize how many baseball books I managed to plow through this off-season. (The Cubs/Cardinals opener doesn't start for another two-plus hours as I type this, so it's still the off-season.)

The windfall this year came courtesy of my father-in-law, who knows I like an old baseball book. Not to digress too much, but he knows this in part because at my day job I recently helped reissue these two peppy little numbers, which you can read about elsewhere (left and right).

Anyway, my FiL delivered a box of moldy baseball books that a friend of his was looking to unload and there, amid ancient volumes of statistics and less-than-readable surveys were some gems. Foremost among them was Roger Kahn's The Boys of Summer, which I had never read because I had assumed it was the progenitor of the astoundingly boring stoopnagles-and-Duke Snider genre, in which Ebbets Field is Paradise Lost and every spaldeen is a madeleine. And well, yeah, it does have some of that—Kahn was an insufferable child baseball fan, by his own account—but the larger picture is about growing up, learning about the world, and learning to cope with change, both as it happens and as you might later come to understand it. What makes the book transcendent is not just Kahn's skill in evoking the work of a baseball writer, both in the park and in the office, but his ability to get the heroes of his youth to open up, years later, about what it might have all meant—or how little it really did. Does this make me the last person to realize that The Boys of Summer is a pretty damn good book? Maybe. But it is.

Also in that stash was a copy of Bob Uecker's hilarious Catcher in the Wry. Pick it up to savor the cover art alone:

Uecker, as every American over 40 and everyone of any age in the general Milwaukee vicinity knows, is a self-deprecating riot. It probably takes a massive egotist to do such a good job of crapping on himself, but you come away from Uecker's book with a complete appreciation of his skills as a player (negligible) and as a writer (probably worse, but he has the sense to get out of Mickey Herskowitz's way).

The last of the FiL windfall was Green Cathedrals, which is crammed with useful information about present and past ballparks.

Rob and I have, as longtime readers know, a penchant for seeking out former parks—particularly from the Negro Leagues—and many of those we've made it to are documented here. Sadly, the enormous section on former parks is organized alphabetically by city, which is probably fine if you only want to know where the old park in Rockford is but less useful if you're trying to cover a region and don't know what you don't know, which is more often my condition.

There were other baseball books this off-season. Rob tipped me off to the best of the bunch, which was Larry Coulton's Southern League, a well-constructed intertwining of the many stories that played out during the Birmingham Barons' 1964 season.

It doesn't take much imagination to realize that an interracial baseball team in that location at that time was going to become a flashpoint of cultural tension and outright violence. But it does take considerable skill to hold all the stories and perspectives in balance and to make the book more than another this-is-what-happened-over-a-long-season tale. Coulton delivers on that higher promise and more, delivering a complex and at time harrowing tale of a spectacularly difficult time to be a ballplayer or a functional human being of any sort in a region full of rage and idiocy.

Splitting the difference between Coulton and Uecker is Jim Brosnan, a pitcher whose book The Long Season recounts the 1959 National League season from his perspective as a journeyman pitcher who was only just beginning to realize how limited his appeal was.

Brosnan is self-aware, observant, and fun. But he doesn't have the historical wherewithal to make more of his story, nor the outsized Ueckerish personality to make you carry on with him despite his descent into mediocrity. But hey, if it's December, and you want to extend the glow from The Boys of Summer, go for it. I did.

It sure beats reading Josh Ostergaard's "book," which seems to be a loose cluster of diaristic thoughts inspired, sort of, by baseball. It descends not into professional mediocrity but into tiresome scolding about... well, too much. Hair styles. The Yankees. This and that. Steroids. Yeah, man, we all lived through the Injection Era. And then it ended, and we got over it. Sorry about your irrevocably stained childhood and your long-suffering love of the Royals. Grow up.

But The Devil's Snake Curve was by no means the worst Byways-related book I read this off-season. That award goes in a jaw-dropping walk to the staggeringly inept Land Art in the U.S.A. Billed as "a complete guide" to what for shorthand's sake we'll call Land Art, this book falls hilariously short of even the basic criteria. It's hardly complete, it's filled with anecdote and misinformation, and it provides no sort of guide to actually seeking out these artworks. I may have been too optimistic in thinking we'd get some tips for future trips, but I thought I would learn something from this. My god, what an embarrassment. Here's a picture, though, so you can be sure to avoid it at all costs:

Far more entertaining was Greg Bottoms's The Colorful Apocalypse, which goes far deeper into the Outsider Art mythos than we have.

Yeah, OK, my employer published this, too, before I showed up there. What of it?
I mean, we've been Howard Finster's danger playground and many other such sites, but Bottoms gets much closer with Finster's family and friends, and the portrait he paints—of artistic inspiration, of possession, of delusion—is nuanced and gripping. It almost made me want to go back.

Then again, maybe I'll go check out George Bailey's green pool instead.

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