A Season in the Sun by Roger Kahn Harper & Row, $8.95, 175 pp.
JEROME HANNA DEAN, alias Dizzy, who threw baseballs for a living for the St. Louis Cardinals in the days when a free agent was just an unemployed spy, knew more about the sporting life in America than most people who get paid to write about it. Dean was a self-professed country bumpkin with a fearsome fastball that more than made up for his scrambled syntax, but even when his arm died he still knew how to play the game. One day in the tail end of his career he found himself on first base as a pinch runner in the late innings of a crucial game. The bat cracked and leather trimmed the grass, skidding into a textbook double play. Only Dean's head and the ball arrived at second in the same painful instant, and Dean rolled onto the bag unsure of whether his hairline was still in one piece. Out came the stretchers, taking him to the hospital for tests (the next day some smart-aleck headline writer would proclaim: "X-Rays of Dean's Head Show Nothing"). Dean's brother Paul, who owned a looping curveball and the nickname Daffy, met the press later. Yes, his brother was conscious as they carted him off the field, Daffy replied; he was talking the whole time. But what did he say? And Daffy shot back with pure Arkansas honesty, "He didn't say nothing. He was just talking."
More sportswriters should follow Dean's lead: they should try to say less and talk more. Baseball, after all, is for all its pinstriped glory still just a game, the biggest and best circus America could find to go with its daily bread. Yet so many writers insist on finding some cosmic meaning in baseball, some hidden truth in each line drive and Texas leaguer. Some people just never learn.
Luckily, though, some do. Roger Kahn, a Brooklyn-born sage weaned on decades of Dodger glory, spent the better part of his youth trying, in his own words, "to equate the game in terms of Americana." The result was a fat passel of pseudo-sociological articles that would have warmed the heart of Vance Packard. Only they didn't work. Slowly, Kahn admits, he realized that baseball was one interesting part of American life, but hardly a mystic expression of its inner meaning. Like all fun and games, baseball is best suited to anecdotes, not weighty moralizing, to light yarns rather than weighty parables. No one can explain the game's appeal, and Kahn insists that "You learn to let some mysteries alone, and when you do you find they sing themselves."
Kahn's ability to avoid the mawkish trivialities shows in his two recent books. The first, The Boys of Summer, was a story of his love affair with the old Brooklyn Dodgers, the Ebbets Field titans like Snider and Furillo and Robinson, and how they braved the autumn of their retirement. Suffused with the warmth of an adoring child who has recognized the mortality of his idols, the book was an endearing autobiography as well as a finely-tooled bit of nostalgia.
A Season in the Sun never quite captures the same rosy glow of a middle-aged kid rummaging through the old baseball cards in his musty attic. Kahn's latest work has no purpose, nostalgic or otherwise; rather, it is a random collection of essays, each designed to illuminate a different facet of the game. And while the cheesy smell of old newsprint may be gone, along with the saintly aura that decades-old newsreel film seems to lend the athletes of a bygone era, there is still enough magic left in Kahn's writing to draw the reader into an account of the "new" game. Each chapter is an absorbing vignette, a lucid illustration rather than a pompous explanation, a group of baseball stories rather than sports theories.
Kahn's idea is a simple one: although baseball is a game, not everyone plays it the same way. Of course, baseball is Jackie Robinson stealing home in a thunder of lethal spikes and cheery abandon, it is Joe DiMaggio gliding around second base without ever losing his cap, it is Willie Mays soaring through center field space, snaring a foolishly ambitious triple in mid-arc. But baseball is also a hungry kid with visions of a big league paycheck waging war in a dusty sandlot game, swallowing the lump in his throat as the big rainbow curve whirs towards his head, wanting to bail out but afraid to do anything but take a big man's cut and slice the air as the rainbow follows down and away for strike three. It is the agony of the minor leagues, letting the sweat trickle down your back in a near-empty stadium in western Massachusetts, struggling to keep your head down on the ground balls as the fourth inning oozes imperceptibly into the eighth, while meantime all the fans are home watching the Red Sox on the tube. It is the memories of having to play in the shadowy Negro Leagues, jousting with the equals of Ruth and Cobb, and then packing your clothes in a cardboard suitcase and hitching to the next fleabag hotel for tomorrow's exhibition with the Black Barons. Finally, baseball is the ultimate game, corporate-American style, where paunchy men gamble for high stakes on whether their stables of funny-suited heroes can lure enough disciples to pay off the mortgage on their shiny stadiums.
KAHN WEAVES all of these different contests into a neat pile of friendly but telling stories, a chronicle of a baseball season spent roaming the country with the boys and the boys-turned-men who make up baseball. There is Walter O'Malley, cigar-puffing grandee of the Los Angeles Dodgers. And Stan Musial, of the .330 lifetime average and undying fame. Then there is Artie Wilson of the Negro Leagues, who outshone Jackie Robinson and won only mildly-regretted obscurity, and Early Wynn, the Hall of Fame pitcher who threw at the head of any batter who stood between him and his historic 300th career victory--including, in one exhibition, his own son. There are countless anecdotes, profiles, memories that are not really nostalgic, but simply songs of praise to the simplicity and elegance of a game all these men have shared.
Even more compelling, though, are the stories of those who have not yet shared the game fully--those who only dream. Some, like the Berkshire Brewers, a Double-A minor league club which, like all minor league clubs, is slowly withering on the vine of small-town America, might one day see the dream come true--but for now they play to what the Pope calls a private audience, with not enough fans in the two-bit stadium seats to fill a quorum at a PTA meeting. Others, like the 18 members of former Dodger Wally Moon's superb Arkansas small college team, have the talent but little opportunity; while there are those with even less chance. The eager, almost fanatical youngsters of Puerto Rico, where youth baseball has been uncorrupted by the small-time ambitions of fat Little League coaches, all hope to follow their idol, Roberto Clemente, with a pathetic fervor. Pathetic because, for all their talent, Puerto Ricans make it only if they are stars; white owners do not like many Puerto Rican bench jockeys.
Kahn's writing appears to have lost that fire of personal reminiscence in The Boys of Summer. No longer the nostalgic chronicler, the detached Kahn is drier, less compelling. But that is not enough to kill the book; indeed, it only makes it easier for Kahn to create sharper, less biased portraits where once he had to struggle against the hazy aura of youthful hero worship.
To say that Kahn has hit a slump with his second book is hardly true. Instead, he is now dealing with anecdotal impressions of the new baseball reality, perhaps less warm but more real than his first book. This is difficult, because often in baseball the reality gets mixed up with the illusion, the stories become legends and lose their meaning. Kahn's book has not blurred this distinction; he seems to have as firm a hold on reality as Professor Dizzy Dean. It was Dean who, with typical prescience, settled the great curveball debate of the 1930s, the controversy over whether a curveball's arc was real or merely an optical illusion. Dean, professing ignorance of aerodynamics, merely stated, "If you put a man behind a tree and you put me on the other side of that tree, 60 feet, six inches away--well hell, I'll whomp him to death with an optical illusion." Kahn's book does the same--illusion or reality, its stories hit home.