Great sports books often involve small balls

A new baseball book, "Calico Joe," is getting lots of attention, maybe more than it deserves. And does the size of the ball really make for the best sports books?
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Baseball is a frequent subject for books.

A new baseball book, "Calico Joe," is getting lots of attention, maybe more than it deserves. And does the size of the ball really make for the best sports books?

Some have agreed with the late George Plimpton's dictum that, the smaller the ball, the better the sports-writing. We know, of course, that this can't possibly be true in the absence of any really compelling literature about competitive pea-shooting or cherry-pit-spitting. On the other hand, when was the last time you read something particularly memorable about beach balls?

Baseball, not surprisingly, possibly because many still refer to it as The National Pastime, has been the literary sport of kings for journalists and fiction-writers of seemingly every description. Enraptured by the game have been authors as diverse as Ring Lardner and Don DeLillo, Bernard Malamud and Robert B. Parker.

No less a novelist than Philip Roth was so taken by the importance of the subject at hand that he dubbed (albeit facetiously) his 1973 hardball fabrication The Great American Novel.

Roth's work shares a little with the present baseball-oriented sensation, Calico Joe. With its catchy title, timely seasonal release and brand-name tale-teller John Grisham, Joe is a marketing creation that can't possibly not be a bestseller (it's fourth on the New York Times fiction list as I write this).

Meanwhile, Roth's novel seems widely unremembered. Possibly it remains lost in the Green Monster-sized shadow of Malamud's The Natural, the latter perennially accessible both as the seminal 1952 novel and the Robert Redford classic 1984 film version. The movie seems to have been practically memorized by many. It's still knowingly referenced occasionally, if only in a cheesy Seattle Mariners promo commercial that is airing this season.

Here again, no such familiarity follows the Roth novel or its central character. Gil Gamesh, you say? You mean Gil Meche, right?

Not really. The latter was a real right-handed pitcher with the M's and Royals. Gamesh, the invention of Roth, also is a pitcher (named for the ancient  Gilgamesh myth) who, with one delivery possibly intended to murder an umpire, sets in motion the author's tale of players, teams and, indeed, a World War II-era league that never existed.

Grisham's fiction also gets down to the consequences of a single pitch: a bean ball. Such is the time-honored term for what certain pitchers have done deliberately or accidentally since the game became "organized" during the 19th century.

A critical difference with the Roth work is that Grisham's is written as something of a tragedy. The author also weaves fiction with fact in a fashion that isn't quite tidy enough and doesn't quite wash despite Grisham's explanatory afterword about the novelists' license (he's offered similar explanations, most recently with The Confession").

Another problem that easily could've been avoided: Grisham's imagined hero, Joe Castle of Calico, Arkansas, is said to have produced rookie feats improbable enough to seem impossible. The exaggeration of Joe's accomplishments unwittingly becomes the closest the book comes to comic relief.

Calico Joe also suffers by comparison with the other major baseball-fiction title of the past year. Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding, about a college-baseball team in Wisconsin, is more thoughtful about the nuances of baseball, if somewhat more self-conscious with mythology. Harbach's Westish College Harpooners (fictional baseball teams often have stupid names: Roth's Ruppert Mundys; Parker's Connecticut Nutmegs) is often several fathoms too deep with the Melville references. (It did, however, prompt me to re-read Moby Dick, and for that I'm beholden to Harbach.)

But Harbach seldom exaggerates how baseball is honored, appreciated and played. He also offers a sustaining plot that goes well beyond Grisham's reliance on father-son mutual enmity, conflict that leads to what many will agree is unjustified redemption.

The e-reader era affords many the luxury of moving relatively cheap books from the clouds to their laps within minutes. It's possible to pick up almost immediately the elegant, timeless baseball writing of the New Yorker's Roger Angell and other journalists. One of the finest lengthy magazine pieces (no matter what the subject) I've ever read is an exhaustive and still relevant 1986 Esquire article by Richard Ben Cramer about Ted Williams.

Also, getting back to fiction, readers who like baseball should treat themselves to the time-travel charms of Darryl Brock's 1989 If I Never Get Back, in which a modern protagonist winds up in 1869 in the company of the Cincinnati Red Stockings, to say nothing of Mark Twain and Jesse James.

Of course, George Plimpton may have been right when it comes to good writing and the size of the orb, the golf ball being the smallest in competitive sports. Professional golf is often (and often with justification) disparaged for being elitist. Look at it from another perspective: Professional golfers, more so than in just about any endeavor one could name, are something like existential heroes in that they alone (aside from seeking advice from caddies) have total control of and responsibility for their own destinies.

In any case, even readers who despise the game ought to be able to recognize the quality of golf writing exhibited for decades by Dan Jenkins and John Feinstein.

Then there's the case of Plimpton himself. He reaped wide writer's acclaim in 1966 with his book Paper Lion. In retrospect, having done so would seem to contradict what the author supposed about literary greatness versus size of ball. Paper Lion, of course, is about a relatively big, unwieldy thing called a football, which, non-spherical, technically isn't a "ball" at all.


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