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Reading: The Poetry of Baseball

The books of summer: the Encyclopedia, the Abstract, and the collected works of the poet laureate.



Is there a poetry to numbers? In that first semantic moment of youth, when we realized that the only reason "3" means "three of something" is that we make it so, did we think of "3" as a metaphor for "three"--were we thinking in poetic terms?--or were we too upset by the possibilities that "3" might as well mean "four of something," or "forty of something," or "four hundred of something" if we decided to make that so? Isn't there something inherently poetic in the shape of a "3"? In its truncated curves, its rounded, open form, it seems to say so much more than "three," especially when I imagine it in one of those ancient serifed typefaces, in the corner of a page in an old edition of Leaves of Grass, instead of in its glowing, acned form on my computer screen. And if, as it's been said, the best poems are lists, can we make a poem of numbers? Like so: "714; .367; 2,103; 4,191; 56; 41; 58-2/3; 892; 511; 1.12."

Some readers will note that these are no mere numbers. These are figures with connotations matched by only the richest words of our language. They have heft. They set off alarms (especially the first, fourth, and eighth numbers in the poem). They establish a mood. When pondered over a beer out of doors, they can send tingles down the nape of the neck. In this arena, the sheer size of "2,103" can overwhelm, while at the same time seeming no larger--and no smaller--than "56." Meanwhile, "714," "4,191," and "892" have been somehow diminished of late while remaining immortal. To give a helping hand to those readers who are still struggling to get a grip on things, we'll point out that ".367 is not "367," and that "1.12" is nothing like "112," much less the broadcaster's monstrosity "one-point-one-two," a translation from one language into another that loses the poetry completely.

These are numbers with a certain value; they are baseball's immortal figures, part and portion of what one old friend used to call "the baggage we carry," the names, nicknames, figures, and statistics that many of us (mostly grown boys) nestle and nurture in the backs of our minds the way some women keep their wedding dresses well preserved in the closet.

A new edition of the Baseball Encyclopedia has been released this year, and this is where these numbers are enshrined. No, that's not quite right. The record book is the shrine; the Baseball Encyclopedia is statistics and figures in the wild, in their natural habitat, where they can sometimes startle us, popping out of nowhere as we leaf through the pages.

Most articles about the Baseball Encyclopedia--and there have been quite a number since it was first published on baseball's centennial in 1969--concentrate on the nicknames in the book (fun and easy to write about, like lyrics in a rock record review) or on the mere pleasantry of idle pursuits that the book allows, paging through careers on a rainy afternoon. I'd like to point out, on the other hand, that this book changed the game, changed the way we look at baseball, and that the numbers themselves are its treasure, its bottomless lode.

For instance, Sandy Koufax led the National League in earned-run average each of his last five years in the majors. Those statistics, stacked on top of one another on the page In boldface type, read from side to side like so: 2.54, 1.88, 1.74, 2.04, 1.73. If this be poetry--and I could almost argue that it is--it is abstract poetry, a list of words lined up together solely for their ability to please, one by one. And for any baseball fan these numbers are very pleasing indeed. They are pleasing in the abstract, and when fleshed out with any amount of imagination they almost take shape. What they show is a master of the arts, an athlete at the height of his craft, and they depict his mastery in no uncertain terms, and with a pith unmatched in poetry or in drama.

Of course, there are also minutiae in the Encyclopedia; it is, after all, encyclopedic. Koufax's lifetime ERA in World Series games was 0.95, slightly lower than his .097 lifetime batting average in regular league play. Yet this muddies the waters; it is the trivia of the everyday (a check at the grocery store being for the same amount as a pair of shoes we saw in a window), extraordinary perhaps but trivial just the same.

No, the poetry of these numbers lies partly in their weight, partly--especially in the Baseball Encyclopedia--in the stories they tell, epics in columns of figures. These are numbers--stacks upon stacks of numbers like crates in a warehouse. But taken together, assorted player by player, they are also careers and--by that very small effort of imagination--people. Koufax, we know, was a quiet, shy bonus baby--a college basketball player, really, an architecture student on scholarship when signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers because of his extraordinary ability to throw a baseball for speed and speed alone, back in 1955. Because of the rules of the era, the team was required to keep him on its major-league roster, and he suffered through several seasons in which he was unable to harness--quite literally, to control--his abilities. Learning to throw easy and with an emphasis on control, he became the dominant pitcher of his era. Do we not see this in the Baseball Encyclopedia's lines for these seasons? (105 walks in 158 innings in 1958, whew!) If we came to the book with only a knowledge off the statistics and the game, would we not be able to re-create Koufax's career, much as it was, simply by looking at the numbers?

Bill James made this same point--that baseball statistics tell a story--in one of his yearly Baseball Abstracts a few seasons ago. James, also, lauds the Baseball Encyclopedia for making these stories readily available and points to other changes it has made in the game since 1969 by its mere presence, in making available information previously hidden for decades, information previously chopped up and served out in meaningless, piecemeal portions (the stats table on the back of a baseball card). Baseball statistics and knowledge of the game have advanced at such a rate in the last 20 years--with James at the forefront in the 80s--that the burst of information in the wake of the first Encyclopedia is almost overwhelming.

If the Baseball Encyclopedia gave us all the various histories of baseball on the head of a pin in hieroglyphics that, once mastered, are as evocative as they are understandable, if it gave us a way to measure the feats of the titans against those of our own, more human baseball gods, James's Baseball Abstract turned its study to the minute particles of the game, to the everyday occurrences--platooning, the bunt as a strategy and again deepened and radically altered our appreciation for the sport. James's work on players' performances on artificial turf and natural grass, in day and night games, at home and on the road have all become part of the baseball lexicon during this decade. Through statistics, he changed the way we look at the game. Yet his number-crunching never threatened to alienate the baseball fan--and almost always remained practicable and on-target--because in all the numbers he saw the player not behind them but within them. The statistics became a two-dimensional photograph or, at their highest level, a three-dimensional computer hologram, an image of the player in motion within the sport itself.

James, however, for all his skill and erudition, is not so much a poet--too abrupt, glib, and everyday in his delivery--as he is a critic, praising the good, condemning the bad, and often coming up with his own ways to reach the effects he desires from statistics. But if he is not a poet, he is a critic of that rare sort whose work approaches the ranks of literature in and of itself.

The key to James's great success has always been that he was both a statistician and a humanist; he never believed that the statistics were the player, but always pointed out that they were merely a reflection of the player's talents and weaknesses. Thus, it's all the more disappointing when we find James of a waspish temper in his 1988 Abstract, railing continually against the Elias Brothers (baseball's official statisticians) and doubting his own methods and findings. The effect is similar to that of meeting an old friend who joined the Peace Corps; where he used to gripe about how much there was to be done--the monumental nature of the job, which was, you could see, the challenge--he now gripes about the bureaucracy and the limitations and what will never be accomplished. The tone is one of bitterness, throughout the book. In an essay on "The New Strike Zone" which must be one of the most interesting in the book (especially as it predicted this season's decrease in the number of home runs and in batting averages across the board), James makes asides such as, "At this point I sense that I am reaching a saturation point in terms of your ability to assimilate this material," and then, "If your eyes start to glaze over here just skip ahead a page." One of James's great charms has always been his light, conversational, joking manner on the page--his willingness to address the reader directly--but this is that tone gone awry. In this same essay, he also cites a number of statistics, then says they'll mean almost nothing unless he does a parallel study, "which I don't have time to do." When did Bill James ever use this excuse?

In his final essay, "Breaking the Wand," James swears off his own "sabremetrician" label and vows to stop doing the Abstract. His methods, he says, have been ripped off by the Elias Brothers (who have put out their own books the last few years, making sure to beat James to the newsstand by a few weeks every spring) and misinterpreted by those seeking to diminish the appreciation of baseball players instead of enhance it. At one point, earlier in the book, James reminds us that when Mike Schmidt comes to the plate, we should be thinking not of Schmidt's lifetime batting average on turf or against lefthanded pitchers, but of Schmidt himself, of his form as he swings, of his style and his talent. If there is a reason for his bitterness, it is that James believes his statistics have caused too many people to forget this simple, basic part of the game, our enjoyment not as experts but as mere spectators.

If James admonishes us to remember to love the wild swan, there is yet one baseball poet able to capture that swan in flight and put its motion into black-and-white figures on the page--not in statistics but in the poet's traditional form, in words. Roger Angell has been writing about baseball for the New Yorker since at least the early 60s, and although his medium is prose and his chosen form the extended essay, he remains the one writer baseball has who captures the sport--in all its character and difficulty and ease--in the meter of his writing and with the vividness of his metaphors. In the usual convergence of baseball seasons, Angell's recent book, Season Ticket, followed the newest edition of the Baseball Encyclopedia onto the stands just as his previous Late Innings followed the Encyclopedia's fifth edition in 1982. (A new Angell collection comes out, usually, every six years, while the Encyclopedia has moved up its schedule to every three years.) Numbers play a part in Angell's depiction of the sport--as with any baseball fan, Angell knows them and knows how to handle them, tosses midseason ERAs about with a natural nonchalance, cites Ty Cobb's lifetime total of 4,191 hits with dutiful respect--but they are secondary to his own tools, which he uses so well to tell about the game.

For instance, this brilliant little passage on Dan Quisenberry, Angell's friend and, on this occasion, profile subject: "Yet Quisenberry when pitching invites more similes than stats. His ball in flight suggests a kiddie-ride concession at a county fairgrounds--all swoops and swerves but nothing there to make a mother nervous; if you're standing close to it, your first response is a smile. At other times, the trajectory of the pitch looks like an expert trout fisherman's sidearm cast that is meant to slip the fly just under an overhanging clump of alders. The man himself--Quis in mid-delivery--brings visions of a Sunday-picnic hurler who has somehow stepped on his own shoelace while coming out of his windup, or perhaps an eager news photographer who has suddenly dropped to one knee to snap a celebrity debarking from a limousine."

I don't think enough can be said about a passage such as this. That there is a measurable degree of control over the grammar and syntax is obvious. That the control never strains the passage's rhythmic breathing is the miracle, so that like the sport itself the prose is regimented yet relaxed, orderly yet unpredictable. Like the best poetry, it arouses the inner ear and almost calls out to be read aloud. Its rhythms and meter lull one like the pops and slaps of batting practice, while its metaphors and similes are so precise and colorful that William Gass might envy them.

Later, Angell writes that Quisenberry's work is "funny-looking and profoundly undramatic, and he went about it like a man sweeping out a kitchen." Quisenberry's mentor, Kent Tekulve, is described as "the Pittsburgh praying mantis," a pithy picture if ever there was one. Elsewhere, Dwight Gooden "tinkered like a Mercedes mechanic with his suddenly recalcitrant breaking ball," while Steve Carlton's slider "suddenly drops out of the strike zone like a mouse behind the sink." These are the pictures the numbers should make us see when we imagine them in motion.

A fiction editor for the New Yorker, Angell is one of our greatest essayists, and while his pieces gathered here from their appearances, at the rate of two or three a year, in that magazine sometimes depict the game by their rambling, all-encompassing nature, at other times they bring their points to a fine tip. A case in point is Season Ticket's earliest essay, "The Baltimore Fancy," from the 1983 season. It begins with the retirement of Carl Yastrzemski and his comments: "I loved the game, I loved the competition, but I never enjoyed it. It was all hard work, all the time." The piece goes on to celebrate the Baltimore Orioles' work ethic, their philosophy of interchangeable parts and specialization and, most of all, of baseball as a duty and a craft to be mastered. Baseball as work. This is an attitude Angell has indulged with increasing frequency in recent years; he uses his pieces sometimes to break the game down to its smaller elements--like James, only different--and to understand the finer points of craft, of catching as a profession or the proper way to throw a split-fingered fastball. The effect of which is to make the players larger even as they are diminished, to turn them from stars to humans and from there to artisans. Which is something the game has needed for a long time.

Chicagoans should probably be advised that Season Ticket includes synopses of both the White Sox' and Cubs' glory seasons of '83 and '84, and at least one more glowing depiction of Wrigley Field. It also includes Angell's masterful 1986 "Not So, Boston," in which the almost too-large, too-dramatic, too-monumental circumstances of that season are put in glorious perspective. This is an essay that should separate the baseball fans from the Mets haters (a difficult project sometimes in these parts), and the people who should buy this book from those who should stick to statistics and the daily papers.

"Stick to statistics"--hmm, here I betray myself. Because statistics, after all, do not move; they are rather bland, and their very fixedness allows them to be manipulated for ignorant if not evil ends (the sort of mishandling James is referring to--someone cites a player as a clutch, "late-inning pressure" player because he has a .333 batting average under these tightly defined circumstances, when in fact the circumstances are so tightly defined that the player has only a hit in three chances). That, however, is also part of the Encyclopedia's charm: that its numbers are set in stone, and that it is decades and sometimes more decades before Babe Ruth's homerun total (the "714" of our poem) makes way for Hank Aaron's 755, or before Ty Cobb's 4,191 hits make way for Pete Rose's 4,256 (a number now making its first appearance in a baseball encyclopedia). These numbers ought to loom larger and sturdier, like statues in the park; a little imagination, an appreciation for the effort behind them ought to make them loom larger still, and shine brighter in the process. Numbers--like almost anything--can be poetry if enough thought is invested in them. Stacks of figures can assume other forms; they can vibrate with the effort of their very creation and cast characters into being. This is the sort of effort James puts into his work, and this is the sort of effect, I think, that he and his sort--his loyal readers--get out of paging through the Encyclopedia. It is an effect Roger Angell is not unfamiliar with, I believe, even as his writing is independent of the stats themselves. The effect is that of turning black and white into color, words and figures into a world that resembles our own. It is the fuel that the Baseball Encyclopedia, Bill James, and Roger Angell all thrive on. And if I contradict myself in saying that numbers can be poetry but that, after all, words still make the best poetry, very well then, I contradict myself.

The Baseball Encyclopedia, Seventh Edition, edited by Joseph L. Reichler, Macmillan, $45.

The Bill James Baseball Abstract 1988 by Bill James, Ballantine Books, $8.95 (paper).

Season Ticket by Roger Angell, Houghton Mifflin, $18.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/John Figler.

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