Baseball and Lesser Sports by Wilfrid Sheed

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Baseball and Lesser Sports

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The title says it all: This is a book about the game of games, our national pastime. Baseball is the American ritual sport, capturing and reflecting our essence in the same precise but indefinable way as do detective novels, Western movies, and rock and roll. We recognize these and understand them, instinctively, but it takes a writer with the gifts and perceptions of Sheed to explain them to us.

When writing about the heroes of baseball, players such as DiMaggio, Williams, or Jackie Robinson, Sheed captures the complex simplicity of these figures. They are, after all, grown men playing a children’s game, so what is there to hold our attention, and then win our admiration? As Sheed reveals, these men are what they do, and someone like Joe DiMaggio does it better than anyone else could do, or ever be expected to do.

But baseball is a game of teams, and managers, and the front office, and increasingly higher salaries. Some of our finest contemporary baseball writers will write about the teams, and sometimes the managers, but they turn away from the finances and the bruising, baffling tangle of owners, players, and fans, lost in a different sort of game, with too many numbers for it to make sense.

Sheed takes it on, and makes it make some sort of sense with his lucid prose and apt observations. Those who worry that the huge salaries paid today’s superstars will somehow ruin the game, making rich teams unbeatable and poor teams perennial doormats, should hasten to read Sheed’s piece, “What Money Hath (and Hathn’t) Wrought.” And, while you’re at it, don’t miss his perceptive essay on Connie Mack and the cycle of great teams broken and rebuilt, which proves that all the fuss over high salaries is nothing new to baseball, except that a few more zeros have been added.

Of course, the entire collection deserves reading. By turns reflective, biting, and elegiac, Sheed captures the mosaic that is uniquely baseball, and even graces the other, “lesser sports” of his title with a visit.

There are some sports books strictly for the enthusiast who has already memorized the statistics and can recite the litany of team rosters by heart. There are books which reflect grandly and abstractly on the “meaning” of sports. Best of all, there are books to be read and enjoyed by anyone who has ever taken the afternoon off to watch a child’s game played well by grown men. BASEBALL AND LESSER SPORTS is one of those books.