PETER GAMMONS' COLUMN, "On Baseball," is perhaps the most consistently praised portion of the Boston Globe's vaunted ports section. The broad understanding Gammons brings to the game is constantly embellished by his uncanny abilities as an investigative reporter in uncovering salient facts. But for all the applause Gammons receives for his reporting and subsequent analysis, his prose remains flawed.
In Gammon's first book, Beyond the Sixth Game, the deluge of facts and choppy prose combine with a minimum of narrative flow that wears on even the most partisan of Red Sox fans. What works so effectively in a newspaper column does not please when extended over nearly three hundred pages.
Gammons argues that the complexion of major league baseball has changed profoundly since the sixth game of the 1975 World Series. In that contest between the Cincinnati Reds and the Red Sox, a game that is now consistently recalled as among the most exciting ever played, the Sox defeated the Reds when catcher Carlton Fisk hit a twelfth inning home run just inside the left field foul pole. The Reds won the series the next day in less dramatic fashion, and just a few weeks later the free agent was born, changing baseball forever.
Veteran pitchers Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith took major league baseball to court contesting the contractual monoplies that teams held over players. By winning their suit, McNally and Messersmith insured that any player not satisfied with the salary his team was willing to pay him could exercise his option to play out the season and then offer himself to other teams on the open market. Gammons believes that the arrival of the free agent was apocalyptic both for the league's salary structure and for the tenor of the game. As average player salaries rose from nearly $45,000 in 1975 to close to $300,000 in 1983, baseball creeds such as selflessness and team harmony were abandoned on the way to the bank.
GAMMONS MAKES HIS POINTS by discussing major league baseball through the prism of the team he covers, the Red Sox. His first two chapters contrast the 1975 team, a group that seemed on the verge of establishing a New England dynasty, and the mediocre 1983 team--long since stripped of stars like Fred Lynn, Fisk, Rick Burleson and Cecil Cooper--which struggled to avoid last place. Gammons then traces the years between these two poles discussing in minute detail the course of each season, from both an athletic and business perspective. The argument is an important one; the free agent system has changed the sport from an owner- to a player-dominated enterprise. When a player doesn't feel a team is paying him as much as it should, he leaves, thus destroying the regional flavor of the sport. Gammons believes that the identification that each major league city once had with its ballplayers is in danger of vanishing permanently.
However germane and disturbing these changes might be, they are better suited to either a couple of cogent "On Baseball" columns, or through the broader treatment of all twenty six teams. Gammons appears to sense the limitations of his discussion and buttresses his ideas with a glut of observations, quotations, and baseball minutia gleaned from his years covering the Red Sox. The profiles of Sox players and accounts of management parsimony are interesting, but they often diverge from one another failing to render any brand of incisive argument. This is not impressionistic so much as it is egregiously diffuse.
One problem with writing a baseball book is that so many good ones have already been written. Gammons' policy of romanticizing the sport, his striving to provide a sense of the special impact it has upon players and New England communities is not appreciated because Roger Angell has already done it all before, and done it much better besides. True, the New Yorker writer-whose essays do make splendid books--has the advance of observing all twenty six teams, but ever, Angell's portrayal of the Red Sox his discussions of New England's affection for its team has the touch of an artist. Gammons is correct in noting that the Sox are "sports' first and foremost regional franchise," yet his attempts to prove it are at best, clumsy.
GAMMONS IS AN EXPERT journalist, and within the diffuse deluge are many interesting anecdotes. He relies heavily upon quotations and he has heard some of the best. Before the seventh game of the 1975 series, Sox starting pitcher Bill Lee announced that after the game, Red's starter "Don Gullett is going to the Hall of Fame and I'm going to the Eliot Lounge." Troubled reserve Red Sox outfielder Bernie Carbo once explained his failure to respond to phonecalls saying, "I only answer the phone when its my wife calling."
The book also includes such poignant anecdotes as Carl Yastrzemski's refusal to admit he was going to retire because that meant giving in to pitchers; Fred Lynn's ten consecutive home runs in batting practice mechanically placed clockwise across the outfield; Jim Rice's exhaustion as hardworking schoolboy ballplayer who also held down a job; coach's yell of "no, no" as "go, go" and being thrown out at the plate to kill a World Series rally, Yet once again they seem better suited to a newspaper column than to a book of this length.
It must also be said that though Gammons' knowledge is appreciated, it sometimes appears in fatuous form. That Scipio Spinks was the college coach of current Sox pitcher Oil Can Boyd is neither an earth-shattering or particularly interesting revelation. Gammons' awkward prose and his tendency to repeat anecdotes (how many times must we hear that after clinching the American League pennant in '75, Sox manager Darrel Johnson drank whiskey with Oakland Athletic Joe Rudi rather than celebrating with his team?) do not help matters.
Gammons failure to discuss anything before 1975, and failure to attend to much of a thesis make this a book with real appeal only to die-hard Red Sox fans interested in Globe-style articles they have probably pored over in the years past. Why Gammons wrote the book is somewhat of a mystery. Three old columns should have been allowed to retain their dignity rather than finding themselves placed into a game for which they were too tired to perform.