Thursday, July 30, 2009

Off-Season Pastimes: The Fifth Season

"People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring." (Rogers Hornsby)

What can the avid college baseball fan do in the off-season to stave off the dreaded baseball-deprivation blues?

Read a Baseball Book: The Fifth Season, by Donald Honig

During my late teens and twenties I read every baseball history book I could lay my hands on. I had been a fan of the game since my dad took us to semi-pro games back in Sioux City, Iowa, when we were just kids. But I became a serious follower of baseball by immersing myself in the history and lore of the game, reading about the players who left their mark .

Donald Honig has written several books on baseball history, specializing in collections of in-their-own words interviews with former ballplayers, such as Baseball When the Grass was Real and The Image of Their Greatness.

In this latest book, Honig writes about himself, telling about growing up in Brooklyn and his experiences as a baseball fan and as a baseball writer.

By my estimate, at least 70% of the book is cut-an-pasted from his previous oral history books and articles, interspersed with new paragraphs detailing how he got those interviews and his own reflections on those players.

The parts that are about the author's life are pretty standard for a baseball fan bio, including the typical childhood growing up in a family worshipping an east coast team (the Dodgers) and memories of early brushes with baseball greatness. Occasionally his skill as a writer enlivens the memoir:

I saw Reiser steal home in 1942, during a doubleheader with the Cubs. There he was, inching down the line a half-crouch, watching the pitcher like a famished predator, and then - a roar from the crowd - he became a flash, a stitch of uniformed lightning, and eruptive blast of dust, sliding around home with gritted teeth, one hand thrown back to brush across the surface as the crouched umpire swung palms down over him.
The most interesting parts of the book are the author's-perspective rehash of those interviews with the baseball greats, like DiMaggio and Williams and Reiser.

In my first-person opinion, I highly recommend you read Honig's earlier books, like I did years ago. They are a great way to learn about the history of baseball through the eyes of the men who played the game. You'll have to hunt for them in used book stores and libraries, since most are not still in print. But you'll get more of the ballplayers' words in the original versions and less of Honig's personal thoughts about those interviews.

The search is worth the trouble. The casual fan of the game doesn't realize what he or she is missing by not understanding what has gone before to produce the grand old game we know today.

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