Karl Lindholm: The Book of Baseball: Who wrote it? Where can I get it?
SABR, the Society of American Baseball Research, is in its 50th year. Begun in 1971 by 16 serious baseball fans, the organization today has over 6,000 members. To celebrate it 50th anniversary, SABR is publishing a book of 50 essays, “SABR 50 at 50: The Society for American Baseball Research’s Fifty Most Essential Contributions to the Game,” one for each year. One of those essays, (“The Book”) from SABR’s research journal, The National Pastime, (1996) is by our sports columnist Karl Lindholm and is included in this volume. Here is a condensed version of that piece.
“I never play by the book because I never met the guy that wrote it.”
— Dick Williams, Oakland A’s Manager, 1980
Baseball is the most literary of sports in America and the “book” is a powerful symbol, residing at the center of the game. The immediate suggestion of the Bible and other sacred texts is unavoidable. After all, the Old Testament starts with “in the big inning” (an old joke, I apologize).
Baseball finds its way into the books of some of our greatest writers. In the 1870s, America’s bard Walt Whitman observed, “I see great things in baseball. It is our game — the American game.” Our own Robert Frost was an avid ballplayer in pickup games at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and even covered the 1956 World Series for the fledgling Sports Illustrated.
We all remember from high school English that Hemingway’s Santiago, the Cuban fisherman and baseball fan in “The Old Man and The Sea,” was inspired by Joe DiMaggio’s bone spurs.
Not all books having to do with baseball explore its imaginative possibilities and cultural relevance. In fact, perhaps the most important book in baseball isn’t even written down: it moves through time on the force of his own historical authority.
“The Book” in baseball has a thousand Commandments: it dictates that you take at 3-0, hit behind the runner, don’t throw it in the strike zone at 0-2, bunt with runners on first and second with no outs in a close game, don’t run when you’re behind, don’t make the first or third out at third base, bring in the southpaw to pitch to a tough lefty hitter late in the game.
The Book is a guide to life between the lines, a guide to the strategy of baseball, the collected wisdom of the game’s practitioners.
Who wrote this Book — and where can I get a copy? Like the Bible, it has many authors. John “Muggsy” McGraw (hardly a saint) was an early and crucial contributor. McGraw’s legatee, feisty Earl Weaver “wrote” new and important chapters in his game strategy.
Weaver’s methodology, based on the big inning, was in explicit contrast to McGraw’s station-to-station, one run-at-a-time impulse. “Pitching, defense, and three run homers” was his credo and formula. Weaver rarely bunted: “I’d like to find the guy who invented the sacrifice bunt and shove it in his ear ... it’s the most overused strategy in baseball. Why give up the out. Let your hitters hit.”
Of course, players and managers keep a Book on one another as well. We often hear comments like: “the Book on Moose is that he can’t lay off high heat”; or “the Book on Lefty is that he gets rattled with men on base.” The Book on manager Billy Martin was that he practiced the inside game of John McGraw. Roger Angell once said of him: “He loves the suicide squeeze the way a wino loves muscatel.” (Unfortunately, he also loved muscatel the way a wino loves muscatel.)
You can’t buy this Book; it doesn’t exist in earthly form; it is mystical and mythological, though it has daily practical application in the game. You can find the Book at any ballpark, any day there’s a game, at any level, but you can’t find it at the Vermont Book Shop.
There is another Book, this one a real, concrete thing, that the game also depends upon utterly: the scorebook. This Book doesn’t just keep score: it is the origin of the miasma of numbers and statistics so central to the game. It is the essential starting point, the source, of our evaluation of players’ performance: “He’s a .300 hitter,” we say, or “he’s got an ERA under 3.00.” These standards of excellence evolve from the daily assembly of scorebook stats.
In the movie “Bull Durham,” Crash Davis talks about how tough it is to hit for a decent average:
"Do you know what the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is? It’s 25 hits. 25 hits in 500 at bats is 50 points. There’s six months in a season; that’s about 25 weeks. That means if you get one extra flare a week, just one, a gork, you get a ground ball, you get a grounder with eyes, you get a dying quail . . . just one more dying quail a week, and you’re in Yankee Stadium."
That one hit a week could be also be a scorer’s decision on a booted ball (or maybe that’s what a “gork” is).
Go to any game and look on the bench and you will find some solemn individual, a parent, assistant coach, sister, or substitute player, bent over the task of “keeping the book” (it sounds like a job for a medieval monk — “The Keeper of the Book”). There is no coach who hasn’t asked plaintively before a game: “Who’ll keep the Book today?”
In the professional game, writers, sportswriters, fittingly keep the Book. At other levels, it’s whoever you can get to do it. The reason it’s hard to find keepers of the Book is because it’s hard to keep. It is a hieroglyph of black splotches (runs), numbers, letters, combinations of numbers and letters.
It is easy to screw up the Book, especially when the ball is winging around the field seemingly unwilled. I love it when the radio announcer says something like, “For those of you keeping score at home, that rundown went 3-6-3-4-2-6.” It’s hard to fit all those numbers in that little box (and, by the way, who are these people keeping score at home?).
When I was coaching high school baseball I once read in the morning newspaper that my team had been no-hit the day before. That was news to me: I could have sworn we had some hits, so I went to the Book, our scorebook, and sure enough, we had three hits. Clearly, their Book-keeping authority (probably the coach) had a different view of some hard ground balls off gloves.
There are, of course, regular books about baseball, written-down books, and baseball lit does have its canon. Classics include Lawrence Ritter’s “The Glory of their Times,” “The Boys of Summer” by Roger Kahn, and “Only the Ball was White” by Robert Peterson. My favorite in the non-fiction category is “Baseball’s Great Experiment, Jackie Robinson and his Legacy,” by Jules Tygiel, the best combination I know of baseball scholarship and narrative appeal.
On the fiction side, most readers anoint Bernard Malamud’s “The Natural” as the Book, with W.P. Kinsalla’s “Shoeless Joe” and “The Southpaw” by Mark Harris close behind. My favorites are more esoteric: I love Jerome Charyn’s “The Seventh Babe,” Nancy Willard’s “Things Invisible to See,” and Darryl Brock’s “Havana Heat.”
For those of us who love books, baseball will always be the national pastime.
So... keep the Book, read the Book, learn the Book, follow the Book — but not slavishly: sometimes we all need to defy the Book just to make life more interesting.