Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Ball Four and the Boys of Summer

As a fairly well-read baseball fan, it is kind of embarrassing to admit that I had not read two “classics” until very recently: Jim Bouton’s Ball Four and Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer. Just to make sure you don’t get the wrong idea, I have read a lot of baseball history type books, not just all of the sabermetric stuff. I have read Seymour’s Baseball series, Voigt’s American Baseball series, Peterson’s Only the Ball Was White, Tygiel’s Baseball’s Great Experiment, Asinof’s Eight Men Out, Helyar’s Lords of the Realm, etc. I am not well-read historically perhaps by the standard of the typical SABR member, but it’s not like I’ve never read anything other than Bill James.

Anyway, with that I can give my brief thoughts on Ball Four and The Boys of Summer. Ball Four caused quite the stir when it came out, but it is difficult to understand why now. It is pretty tame by modern standards: players swear, smoke, and drink, they cheat on their wives and peep at naked women, they take amphetamines. Shocking. Of course, this is someone who was born in the 1980s speaking. I have seen this same point about Ball Four being tame thirty-five years later, but it is even more true when you have always thought about athletes in that way for your entire life. I also realize that this was shocking at the time, but I cannot divorce myself from my cynicism to understand that fully.

With that said, the book is entertaining and is very interesting. I found it a tad bit monotonous, but Bouton’s observations on baseball and other topics are generally interesting, and it is interesting to read the thoughts of a ballplayer throughout the season and the circumstances that it entails. I like Ball Four, and I respect its historical significance and impact, but I cannot consider it one of the great baseball books.

As far as The Boys of Summer goes, I found it tedious and vapid. Dodgers get old and no longer live lives as ballplayers. They have children and they marry and they divorce and they have personal tragedies. In other words, they are like everybody else, except they played baseball. Of course, much of the book is Roger Kahn’s own personal story, which is something he is free to tell of course, but I’m not really interested in sportswriter’s autobiographies.

Most obnoxiously, the author looks at the world, and therefore colors his story, through a view that I do not accept. It is not surprisingly a liberal view, but it also to me at least reflects a condescending attitude toward small towns and rural America. Anyone not living in New York City is somehow living an unfulfilled life. I may exaggerate a little, but that is the vibe that I get. Bill James had similar observations, not about The Boys of Summer, but about various portrayals of his home state of Kansas. While my hometown in suburban/rural Ohio is hardly a Kansas small town of the 1960s, the glorification of the big city still rubs the wrong way. Kahn does not seem to understand that some people could not be paid enough to deal with living in New York City or Los Angeles. The Boys of Summer is overrated, unless you are an old Brooklyn fan.

1 comment:

  1. I recommend Jim Brosnan's books. They resemble Bouton's book, but considering the era in which Brosnan pitched, it's quite funny. These are a nice followup to Glory of Their Times by Larry Ritter and Danny Peary's We Played the Game: Memories of Baseball's Greatest Era. Great stories by the guys who played the game.

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