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BASEBALL BY THE BOOKS

A Happy Diversion
Book Review by David Shiner

Richard Peterson. Extra Innings: Writing on Baseball. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001, 174 pp., $14.95, paper.

 

So you love reading about baseball. You've read The Boys of Summer and A False Spring and Eight Men Out. You're also familiar with books by other gifted baseball scribes: Roger Angell and Robert Creamer, Arnold Hano and Tom Meany, Damon Runyon and all the rest. And you've read lots of fiction: Field of Dreams, Bang the Drum Slowly, The Great American Novel. Well, maybe you haven't read all those books, but you've heard about them, and you plan to fill in the gaps just as soon as you have a moment to spare.

Put those plans aside and read Extra Innings instead.

Richard "Pete" Peterson, architect of the "Writing Baseball" series at Southern Illinois University Press and a frequent contributor to baseball publications, has read all the books and stories that you and I have, and many more besides. In Extra Innings he discusses them all—what they seek to accomplish, whether they succeed or fail, where they stand in the annals of baseball literature. In so doing, he adds a dimension to the discussion of serious baseball writing that has been lacking until now.

The virtues of this book are many. First but not least is the fact that Peterson, like the authors whose work he examines, is an excellent writer. He knows how to turn a phrase; he knows how to segue from one idea or book to another with style and grace. When writing about the works of gifted authors, literary proficiency is a must. Peterson is up to the task.

It's not enough to write well, though; one must also write about worthwhile topics. Peterson obviously considers high-quality baseball writing to be in this category, and Extra Innings makes an effective case that the rest of us should hold the same opinion. Although Peterson intentionally steers clear of the jargon of literary criticism, he tells us enough about each work to show why it merits our attention.

Peterson is at his impressive best when he brings to light the underlying power of the works he cites without evaluating them. In the second chapter of Extra Innings, for example, he discusses the force of what he calls the "dream narrative" in baseball writing. Focusing especially on the relationship between father and son while quoting from authors as fantastical as W. P. Kinsella and as realistic as Roger Kahn, he demonstrates convincingly how numerous and disparate baseball writers "invoke a dream narrative in which fathers and sons, the past and the present, the remembered and the imagined, are joined in a celebration of baseball as enduring and unalterable." Comments of this sort, smartly written and buttressed by suitable references and quotations, can't help but enhance the reader's appreciation of baseball literature.

Many of Peterson's observations are casual gems. Take for instance his commentary on The Natural, the novel in which "fiction writers began to challenge rather than perpetuate the cultural icons and mythic narrations of baseball." As Peterson points out, this is somewhat ironic in light of author Bernard Malamud's frequent references not only to baseball's own mythological legacy, but also to the myths of ancient and medieval times. This mythological structure, however, is stood on its head by the central character, Roy Hobbs, who "undermines the mythmaking powers of baseball through his ignorance of tradition and his culpability. Rather than signifying the timeless and heroic in baseball, then, The Natural anticipates the postmodern text"—that is, the text that explodes baseball's myths. Ball Four and Lords of the Realm are examples of books that fit in the "postmodern" category, as counterparts to the hero journalism of yore.

In debunking the products of hero journalism, Peterson frequently ap-peals to realism as a worthy goal for fiction and nonfiction alike. While I agree that what he calls "the conventional three-two-pitch, bottom-of-the-ninth, final-game-of-the-series-or-season moment of truth" story has long since outlived its usefulness, I'm less convinced by his view that realism is more laudable than myth. We turn-of-the-millennium types, hooked on realism though we are, should bear in mind that realism was the goal of painting until impressionism and its successors came along. Now, nearly a century and a half later, realism is regarded as merely one possible approach to artistic endeavor, and not necessarily the noblest. The same fate might be in store for baseball literature.

But such trivialities should detract not a whit from anyone's enjoyment of Extra Innings. As he implies in his preface, Peterson favors conversation over critique. That's my preference too. In my imagination, I envision us sitting side by side in the bleachers at an unspecified ballpark after our retirement from academia, discussing a wide range of issues concerning baseball literature. Alongside us in this uncut diamond of my fancy are our baseball-forbearing wives, re-minding us—just in case the conversation gets too academic—that the game's the thing. —EFQ

DAVID SHINER has been a member of the faculty at Shimer College in Waukegan, Illinois, for more than twenty years. His book Baseball's Greatest Players: The Saga Continues, a sequel to Tom Meany's Baseball's Greatest Players, was recently published by Superior Books
(
www.superiorbooks.com).

© 2001 David Shiner

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