Review: Anatomy of Baseball

As contributor Stefan Fatsis puts it, this anthology is “about the gorgeous minutiae of baseball” (15), and as any fan of the game will attest, it’s all about the small stuff. Back while the Red Sox were still loveable losers, I attended a game at Fenway with a colleague from England and thought I might teach him some of the finer points of baseball by showing him how to keep score. Well, Johnny Damon batted three times in the first inning and was threequarters of the way to hitting for the cycle as the Red Sox set a record by scoring 10 runs before the first out was recorded by the Marlins (who went on to win the World Series that year). All of the beautiful minutiae that went by the boards that summer night can be found in Anatomy of Baseball, which has the same effect as being in a roomful of storytellers who are swapping, matching, and extending each other’s baseball tales long into the night. While fans of baseball writing will find plenty to enjoy and anticipate as they make their way through the selections, writing students will also find strong examples from each part of the creative nonfiction spectrum: traditional biography and autobiography, immersion essays, memoir, personal essays, meditative essays, and lyrical essays.

The twenty essays fall into two broad categories: baseball history and personal narrative. The historical topics one would expect to find are present, along with some heavy-hitting veteran baseball writers: a paean to baseball caps by Frank Deford, Roger Angell’s take on pitching and pitchers, and John Thorn’s musings on the origins of the game’s true creators, the spectators. Michael Shapiro’s father-and-son biography of the Southworths, set during World War II, proves that The Last Good Season was not a one-hit wonder. Another standout is Warren Goldstein’s meditative piece about his motivations as a forty-two-year-old player and the realization that the informal softball game on one of the Isles of Shoals (off the coast of New Hampshire) is actually recreating baseball history. 

According to Sue William Silverman, literary memoir is “much more than mere confessional or ‘navel gazing’” (The Writer’s Chronicle, March 2008, 8). In the same interview, she says that she writes “to understand the world around her” and that literary memoir “seeks a path from the self to the world—family, society, history” (8). The personal narratives in Anatomy of Baseball seek similar understanding with regard to the small points of baseball—and they avoid the navel-gazing trap by following the numberone precept of all baseball literature—which is to be about more than just the game. On the individual level, personal essays by George Plimpton and Matt Wood examine the effects of aging on their ability to play the positions of their choice, while Susan Perabo writes about her imagined career in the major leagues and honestly explores whether women will one day “make the grade.” Moving on to family and society, Jeff Greenfield looks at father and son bonding at Yankee Stadium while Philip F. Deaver’s memoir treats God and the game in a piece about a priest, a wooden Louisville Slugger, and a county courthouse—which could be a symbol of American art comparable to James Joyce’s cracked looking glass from Ulysses. The collection also includes immersion essays by Stefan Fatsis and Jake Young, which provide extensive information about the manufacturing of baseball gloves and spring training stadium lighting. J. D. Scrimgeour uses the second person to encourage readers to identify with his lyrical ode—or is it an elegy?—to the outfield and the outfielder. Moving beyond the shores of America, three writers treat the game from the expatriate perspective. Katherine A. Powers offers a meditation on growing up and going abroad with a baseball glove. Rick Harsch proves that umpire-baiting is just as effective in Slovenia and that baseball has its own socio-political system wherever you go. Caitlin Horrocks describes her role in preserving the honor of her homeland in Finland’s version of baseball, which adopts the Jimmy Piersall method of running the bases clockwise from home to third. 

Taken together, the pieces in this anthology illustrate how baseball writing can function in American culture as a vehicle for expression, meditation, and understanding. More than half of the writers speak actively from the player’s perspective; the rest of the pieces are evenly split between the perspectives of the commentator, historian, and fan. But it is a fair bet that these writers were also players once upon a time. This connection—this “connective tissue” as Gutkind describes it in his introduction—makes baseball an important part of American culture (xv). As this anthology illustrates, to play baseball, whether in the sandlot across from the courthouse, on the lawn of a Victorian hotel, or at the top of the world, is to take the first step to writing about it and recreating the “snap, go, fling” that Walt Whitman so admired about the potential of the American spirit. Borrowing a phrase from another practitioner of American literature, let us hope this connective tissue between baseball and American culture does not merely endure, but prevail.