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Glory Days 

A new book about manager Tony La Russa comes up short, but histories of Satchel Paige and the turn-of-the-century New York Giants score hits.

Once again, despite the principals' best efforts to destroy it, Major League Baseball is back in session, playing to record crowds across the country, including the new-old team in Washington, the erstwhile Expos, now known as the Nationals. The Beltway, of course, staged an even bigger baseball drama in March when a Congressional committee hauled in half the All-Star team -- Curt Schilling, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro, to name but a few -- to unearth additional sordid details of dugout pharmacological adventures.

Was this productive? Not really, but at least it served as a bit of a scarlet letter for executives and players alike. Retired slugger Mark McGwire, ashen-faced and humiliated, wasn't ashamed enough to leave his Johnnie Cochran-inspired answers at home. So flimsy was his spine that he failed to muster the courage to opine on whether steroid use in baseball is a form of cheating.

Such tempests, no matter how maddening, must be put into context. Baseball seems forever on the brink of disaster, yet more people watch and attend big-league games now than ever before. And write (and read) about baseball more than ever, too. Indeed, the baseball section at some bookstores looks as bloated as Barry Bonds on a BALCO bender.

The current crop includes a bounty of books devoted to the Boston Red Sox, last seen eradicating an 86-year-old curse by winning the World Series with a sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals in October. Fatigued by Johnny Damon's hair and the New England penchant for endless self-analysis, we'll take a pass on re-living those recent glories. Other notables go old school (Satchel Paige) and really old school (Christy Mathewson and John McGraw leading the New York Giants of the early 1900s), while another returns to the contemporary realm of Tony La Russa.

The enigmatic Mr. La Russa is a one-time wunderkind who now has managed various clubs for a combined quarter-century. He started with the White Sox in 1979, went to the A's in 1986 and, in 1996, joined the St. Louis Cardinals. Literary celebration is nothing new for La Russa, who was lionized by George Will in 1990's Men at Work. Now, in Three Nights in August (Houghton Mifflin), La Russa, who collaborated with author Buzz Bissinger, offers the occasional insight (a chapter on bean balls is fascinating), but these episodes are more than offset by sanctimony, idolatry and, in Bissinger's case, purple prose and specious reasoning.

Bissinger's 1990 Texas football tome, Friday Night Lights, remains one of the best sports books ever conceived. La Russa already ranks among the game's 10 all-time winningest managers and, despite crushing World Series collapses in 1988, 1990 and 2004, must be considered a managerial exemplar. But Three Nights doesn't do anything for either man's reputation. The book documents a three-game Cubs-Cards series in August 2003 as a microcosm of big-league life. Bissinger has done a lot of homework and reporting, but he can't stay out of his own way -- or stop fawning over La Russa.

Bissinger and La Russa bail out of the batter's box before the narrative's first pitch makes its way to the plate. 'This book,' Bissinger writes, 'was not conceived as a response to Moneyball.' The reference to Michael Lewis' extraordinary 2003 examination of Billy Beane and the Oakland A's, a landmark reporting effort detailing talent assessment in the big leagues, is disingenuous. A few sentences after asserting that Three Nights should not be linked with Moneyball, Bissinger laments the new numbers-happy software aficionados embodied by Beane. 'It is wrong to say that the new breed doesn't care about baseball,' Bissinger writes. 'But it's not wrong to say that there is no way they could possibly love it, and so much of baseball is about love.'

Cue the Ken Burns soundtrack. Not only does Bissinger serve up cliches, he also makes claims that could never be proved. He rhapsodizes over La Russa and the baby boomers who value 'heart,' 'passion' and 'desire.' You're all but waiting for James Earl Jones to stride across the page and offer his Field of Dreams speech about how baseball can cure all that ails America.

Sloppiness permeates Moneyball. Several years ago, Stephen King (a Red Sox fanatic) proffered a brilliant piece of writing advice: 'The adverb is not your friend.' King's advice never reached Bissinger, who uses the adverb 'simply' 11 times in a six-page span. Unnecessary italics and ellipses Š dot sentences with enough frequency to leave one convinced that Larry King edited the manuscript. Eminent Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone becomes 'Lee.'

Overwriting litters too many pages. Bissinger tells once and again of La Russa's smoldering face, stopping short of promising to fry eggs on it. La Russa glowers and smolders and sulks and wanders through various American cities seeking answers to gut-wrenching questions such as whether Albert Pujols, ailing with a useless throwing arm, should be relocated to first base from the outfield.

Yet baseball, to paraphrase William Faulkner, will not merely endure. It will prevail. Three Nights in August might be a bust, but readers looking to fill their time between episodes of Baseball Tonight can turn to Satchel Paige and the sturdy prose of Frank Deford for comfort.

William Price Fox, writer-in-residence at the University of South Carolina, is the author of Satchel Paige's America (University of Alabama Press), which is more an extended conversation than a traditional biography. Fox, on assignment for Holiday magazine during the early 1970s, spent many nights with Paige in Kansas City, accompanying the Hall of Fame pitcher to his various nighttime haunts.

Despite a red flag in the publisher's description of how the book came about -- 'Fox relied on his memory' -- the accounts mostly ring true. Fox published his magazine article based on unrecorded conversations. Paige went flat, in Fox's description, when recorders or notebooks were brandished. Instead, the two men swapped stories and Fox returned to his hotel room each night (morning?) to scribble down everything he could remember.

This is dangerous living in the journalism world, but the pace and rhythm of Paige's numerous quotes bear an authentic sheen. Of his famous advice to avoid fried foods because they anger the blood, Paige quashes what he terms a mythical quotation. 'How'm I going to eat eggs in the morning when I'm out on the road unless I fry them?' Paige asks Fox. 'I sure as hell ain't going to suck them. And how about bacon? And how about ham? And how about sausage? What am I going to do with stuff like that? Here I am on some sorry-assed gravel road four hundred miles from nowhere, what kind of breakfast can I cook on my Coleman if I can't fry me up something?'

Perhaps a blend of fact and fiction, Fox's travels with Satch prove illuminating and intriguing, with cameos from Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway and Joe Louis, among many others.

Meanwhile, writer Frank Deford's mastery demonstrates the most enviable traits associated with excellence in any field: it is smooth and effortless. (Think Mariano Rivera, the Yankees' late-inning maestro.) With The Old Ball Game (Atlantic Monthly Press), Deford highlights the oft-forgotten run of John 'Muggsy' McGraw and Christy Mathewson. McGraw, a stellar player on the dominant Baltimore teams of the 1890s, reigned supreme during the first two decades of the 1900s as the game's shrewdest manager. With Mathewson, the first all-American sports hero and a dynamic pitcher, McGraw had a pivotal piece in the New York Giants' dynasty. The Giants won just one World Series during the McGraw-Mathewson years. Even so, they claimed four National League pennants and rarely finished out of contention.

Baseball at the time had become mired in a perceived lower-class fog, preventing the game from capturing the popular imagination. Christy Mathewson changed all that. A Bucknell graduate (this at a time when 6 percent of Americans graduated high school), Mathewson brought intellect, wholesomeness and a magnificent pitching arm to a city bustling with expansion and a proud new subway system.

Deford leavens his account with ample doses of reality. For example, Pete Rose had nothing on Hal Chase, a notorious game-fixer who played for McGraw and, despite damning evidence, avoided severe punishment from baseball leaders. Deford makes a convincing case that the 1919 Black Sox scandal -- when players threw the World Series in exchange for bribes -- represented a culmination of the game's gambling plague. Deford defies conventional wisdom with this assertion, as many historians portray the Black Sox episode as mere aberration.

As for Mathewson, who compiled 373 wins and a sparkling 2.13 ERA, he became part of the Hall of Fame's inaugural class, joining Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson and Honus Wagner in the single greatest collection of inductees in baseball history. Polar opposites, McGraw and Mathewson became fast friends and even shared an apartment together. Both men died young. McGraw accelerated his decline, in part, with alcoholism, dying at age 60. Mathewson, gone at 45, contracted a fatal case of tuberculosis during an ill-fated stint as a chemical-weapons specialist trainer in World War I. While McGraw's vicious competitive streak and dictatorial tactics live on in coaches and managers such as Bob Knight and Bill Parcells, Mathewson's combined gifts were, in Deford's words, sui generis: "There won't be anyone else like him because the environment will never be that way again. Mathewson was a man of his time."

click to enlarge Baseball seems forever on the brink of disaster, yet more - people than ever are watching -- and reading about -- - the game.
  • Baseball seems forever on the brink of disaster, yet more people than ever are watching -- and reading about -- the game.
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