KANSAS CITY, MO
BUNTS: CURT FLOOD, CAMDEN YARDS, PETE ROSE AND OTHER REFLECTIONS ON BASEBALL
By George F. Will
352 pp., $25
A GREAT AND GLORIOUS GAME: BASEBALL WRITINGS OF A. BARTLETT GIAMATTI
By A. Bartlett Giamatti
Edited by Kenneth S. Robson
121 pp., $15.95
Baseball, more than any other American sport, has fascinated generations of writers. Ever since Walt Whitman pronounced it "our game," baseball has been fodder for novelists, poets, journalists, historians, and academics.
This year's bumper crop of baseball books includes two worthy contributions from writers well known in fields other than the one between the white lines.
George F. Will, the conservative political columnist and television commentator, is the author of "Men at Work: the Craft of Baseball." Published in 1990, it combined a love of baseball, and an admiration for the men who play it, with a broad knowledge of the game and its history in a witty and highly readable style. The result was not only one of the best baseball books of the decade, but a bestseller as well.
Will returns to baseball with Bunts: Curt Flood, Camden Yards, Pete Rose and Other Reflections on Baseball, a collection of 81 essays written between 1974 and 1997.
Will covers a lot of ground over the course of almost a quarter of a century. Flood, Rose, and Camden Yards are, indeed, among his subjects, but so are a vast number of other topics, including umpiring, relief pitching, Billy Martin, Marvin Miller, the designated hitter, and lights in Wrigley Field.
Will has a passion for the game that he never allows to degenerate into intellectual prattlings or gooey rhapsodies. Indeed, his view of baseball is refreshingly unromantic. He is consistently drawn to those in baseball - not just players, but also umpires, managers, and broadcasters - who achieve excellence through hard work and thoughtful study. He is more interested in the craftsman than the hero.
All the pieces in "Bunts" are a joy to read, full of interesting observation, analysis, history, and lots of marvelous anecdotes. Most essays are very short, so reading one bite-sized piece after another is a little like trying to make a meal out of a case of Cracker Jack.
Fortunately, there are a handful of longer articles in the book, and these are the most interesting, particularly an essay on baseball in the 1950s, a critique of "Men at Work" by historian and fan Donald Kagan, and a profile of broadcaster Jon Miller.
A. Bartlett Giamatti was a professor, a university president, and, briefly, commissioner of baseball. In his spare time he wrote articles on baseball for a variety of newspapers and magazines. A Great and Glorious Game: Baseball Writings of A. Bartlett Giamatti brings together nine such essays, written between 1977 and 1989. Among the pieces collected in this slim volume are meditations on baseball and the American character, a statement to the press following his lifetime banishment from baseball of superstar Pete Rose for gambling, a tribute to pitcher Tom Seaver, and a melancholy reflection on the end of the baseball season.
While his poetic, slightly fanciful musings on the aesthetics of the baseball diamond may not appeal to every bleacher bum, Giamatti's keen and eloquent writing demonstrates an intellectual vigor, a love and knowledge of the game, and an overriding sense of morality.
Giamatti was an unapologetic idealist. After the Rose scandal he wrote: "I believe baseball is a beautiful and exciting game,... an important, enduring American institution. It must assert and aspire to the highest principles - of integrity, of professionalism, of performance, of fair play within its rules."
Whether Bart Giamatti would have made a good commissioner is, sadly, a moot point. He died five months after assuming office and one week after banning Rose. His high principles of integrity and fair play, so prevalent in all these essays, are sorely missed in the game today.
* David Conrads is a freelance writer based in Kansas City, Mo.