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Better Than Mom and Apple Pie

NEW BOOKS

By Adam E. Pachter

Yearning For the Good Ol' Days

For the Love of the Game

Cynthia J. Wilber

William Morrow and Company

Tradition should never be confused with perfection, especially in the game of baseball. The former players interviewed in Cynthia Wilber's For the Love of the Game insist, as do many nostalgic fans, that our national pastime reached its greatest heights in the 1940s and '50s, that baseball today cannot compete with the sport during its glory days. They are wrong. Free agency, artificial turf and relief pitchers have changed the game, not destroyed it. And as George Will has noted, change and innovation should be applauded, not derided, as signs of a living, vibrant sport.

The inability to discuss nostalgia critically is what ultimately dooms For the Love of the Game. Wilber, who spent her childhood following her father, Philadelphia Phillies catcher Del Wilber, around the major leagues, begins this book of baseball testimonials with a tired premise--that America's finest moments occurred during the 1950s, a "time in American history when heroes were important and plentiful and American as a nation had dreams."

Making the oft-used parallel between baseball and the national character, Wilber then asserts that the game also experienced some sort of golden age during that decade, that only then did fans see "ballplayers who played because of a passion for the game." To prove her hypothesis, she gathers the baseball stories of a group of players from the '40s and '50s, individuals who understandably view their own era as the game's greatest.

Were this a book about politics or culture, such glorification of the past might truly be pernicious, as was the case with Reaganism. Since, unlike politics, baseball will never resurrect the substance of by-gone eras, the effect is merely sad. Wilber has interviewed a few legitimate baseball stars, men whose achievements transcend the decade in which they played. But even subjects such as Ted Williams seem unfocused; they deliver vague platitudes to the glory of their times rather than providing the crisp details of specific experiences that enliven good baseball books. David Halberstam understood this, and this is why his interviews with Williams for Summer of '49 show so much more potency.

Unfortunately, most of the book's subject do not even have Williams' credibility. They are small-timers like Chuck Connors, who played a mere three years for the Dodgers and Cubs before pursuing an acting career in Hollywood but considers himself an expert on the failings of current ballplayers. In his day, "Everybody played every game and I don't remember that many injuries." Today, players have "these sports doctors, the great food, the exercise, these great trainers, the great locker rooms and facilities...but Christ, all I hear today is hamstring and rotator cuff."

The point is not to contrast Cal Ripken Jr. and Nolan Ryan with Lou Gehrig and Johnny Vander Meer, or even to note that "these sports doctors" have enabled many players to considerably extend their careers. But comparisons between baseball then and now should depend on the opinions of a Tommy Lasorda and not a Chuck Connors. In one of the book's better interviews, Lasorda succinctly describes the most pronounced change in baseball: the power shift from the owners to the players. If the stars of the 1950s actually played "for the love of the game" and not for money, it was because skinflint owners gave them no choice.

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