I picked up a copy of Baseball’s Best Short Stories on a recent trip to Cooperstown, NY and The Baseball Hall of Fame. It was the perfect souvenir for a short story writer; after all, if I was going to pay at least $20 for baseball-themed merchandise in one of a dozen quaint tourist traps, then it might as well be a book.
Cooperstown is a true American story: tiny town in the beautiful countryside finds a niche and builds an industry of based on merchandise and image. There are dozens of souvenir shops along the four blocks of Main Street selling all things baseball: shirts, jerseys, hats, gloves, customized bats, autographed memorabilia, items of the everyday mundane stamped with team logos. The industry is well-disguised by shops that look like locally-owned mom-and-pops. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t; no national chain restaurants or hotels are allowed in the village, and only one recognizable chain-of-anything – a CVS – is written into this otherwise charming idyll. But the merchants along Main Street know how to attract their customers as well as any franchised brand.
Hence I ended up in a store a few hours after visiting the Hall of Fame, holding a copy of the 2012 expanded edition of Baseball’s Best Stories, edited by Paul D. Staudohar. The collection, which originally came out in 1995, is much like Cooperstown itself, in that it uses baseball to reflect all things America. The selections vary widely from literary fiction by well-known masters to attempts at story telling by sports journalists. Some of the stories are successes and others are not; many of them simply fall in between as pieces that provide an enjoyable way to pass an afternoon but do not merit a second read. The works by familiar literary writers are not the only bright spots in the collection; there are some great pieces by people who do not normally populate short fiction anthologies.
Ernest Thayer’s popular poem Casey at the Bat steps up first, establishing a very large strike zone for the collection. It is followed by a 1988 reimagining of Casey story of the same title, by Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford. Here the mythic Casey hobnobs with boxing champion John Sullivan and basketball creator James Naismith, works for P.T. Barnum, and chases baseball glory through a rather sanitized version of late nineteenth century America. Unfortunately for Mudville Nine fans, Deford’s attempt at reviving Casey’s career strikes out.
Deford’s story is typical of many here by sports journalists – it doesn’t work because it is only about baseball, where the outcome of the game is the only thing that matters. Then there are stories about the lives of people who also happen to play baseball. The latter pieces are the stars. Fortunately, Baseball’s Best Short Stories fields a strong lineup of these pieces.
Robert Penn Warren’s “Goodwood Comes Back” (1948) is about a small town Alabama pitcher who makes it to the major leagues but blows his chance. It is an excellent first person piece that is not really about baseball but, like the best stories, is about the fragility of the people who populate it. “Alibi Ike” (1915) by Ring Lardner is more about how excuse making can become a way of life, for both failures and accomplishments. The story is also a snapshot of baseball’s past and how the game has changed. For example, the title character is criticized for letting his batting average fall to a paltry .397. It is also in the dialect of the time (“They couldn’t none of us answer that and they wouldn’t have been no more said if Ike had of shut up.”), which contrasts with many of the more recent stories from an era that values different stylistic choices.
Not all of the successful stories are by established writers of fiction. Eliot Asinof’s 1953 tale “The Rookie” examines a player who makes it to the major league in his late thirties, and is confronted with an opportunity to be the hero he always dreamed of. Asinof is best known for his 1963 account of the Black Sox scandal, Eight Men Out. Unlike many of the other stories here by sports journalists, the writing is sharp. The dialogue is realistic if not dated, and the story captures the real human emotion underlying the struggle of a long-time minor leaguer to reach the majors. The reader wants to know what happens next, which is the mark of any great story.
Another gem is Leslie Pietrzyk’s “What We All Want” (2003), written from the perspective of a minor league baseball wife who deals with her aging husband’s struggles in an off-season league in Mexico. Pietrzyk is the only woman writer in the collection. Her inclusion does not so much reflect the growing number of female baseball fans as it points out the half-hearted efforts by the male-dominated sports world to recognize their presence. Female fans have always been there – just look at any crowd shot from any era of footage on loop in the Hall of Fame – but they are being acknowledged now because there is money to be made from pink jerseys, hats, and other supposedly female-friendly merchandise. Most of the Cooperstown stores have a women’s section cordoned off from the standard apparel. But Pietrzyk’s protagonist isn’t cordoned off with the other wives – she knows baseball, and her story reflects the reality that there are females who want their shirts and hats to be in team colors – because they are fans who understand and are invested in the game, and not just women who attend the game.
Richard Wilbur’s “A Game of Catch” was not included in the 1995 edition, an error which the editor admits was Buckneresque. However, a slim story of precise writing such as Wilbur’s would not have fit in with the bulkier specimens of mid-90s baseball. I was surprised to find this story, having never seen any of Wilbur’s fiction before, and enjoyed the clean and direct telling of a game of catch between a pair of boys and an interloping friend.
Some of the selections are a stretch for inclusion. Most notable is Tobias Wolf’s brilliant “Bullet in the Brain” which, while a brilliant story that involves baseball, is primarily about the main character’s connections to other people. A baseball game is only one fragment of the many relationships he has shattered.
There are many more stories in this anthology that are worth reading, including pieces by T.C. Boyle, Michael Chabon, Stuart Dybek, Gary Soto, James Thurber, and Chet Williamson. Unlike a collection by a single author, or one based purely on literary fiction, there is a wide variety from which to choose and no thematic thread to follow. A book like Baseball’s Best Short Stories is an excellent travel or leisure companion that can be enjoyed in small bursts without a loss of continuity.
An excellent aspect of the collection is that each entry is preceded by a blurb on the story and author, including date of publication. The dates and background information help put into context not only the stories but also the full expanse of baseball’s reach into American history.
Like a regular season, not every moment in Baseball’s Best Short Stories is memorable; some are dull and uninteresting. But there are plenty of highlights that may otherwise be overlooked for author-specific or literary anthologies. These pieces make Baseball’s Best Short Stories a collection to find, explore, and pass on to someone else, who may be more interested in baseball than fiction, but could perhaps be persuaded otherwise by these fine stories.
Baseball’s Best Short Stories. Expanded edition. Edited by Paul D. Staudohar. Chicago Review Press, 2012. ISBN 978-1-61374-376-8. $18.95 paper.
Pages: 425 FOA Pages: 28,825