January 05, 2014

Some quotations from The Head Game

I once mentioned the estimable Roger Kahn as one of the first great "literary" baseball writers.  But I also said that while Kahn had the better story in The Boys of Summer, I thought Roger Angell the better writer.  This was not meant as a dig at Kahn - I put him right up with there with Angell and Updike, and - to steal a line from Bill James - if you can stand next to those guys and not look ridiculous, you're doing very well.

Nevertheless, I feel like I have slighted the man in some way...all the more so since I picked up his fine 2000 effort, The Head Game.  This later work explores the pitcher-batter relationship in two books, one covering the distant past, the other the "modern" (post-WW2) era.  Sort of an Old Testament / New Testament approach, if you will.

I've only read the first half, but in doing so I realize that, to be fair to Kahn, I must point out what a great reporter he is.  He has been on the baseball beat for a while.  If you want to know something about Warren Spahn, Bill James might quote statistics or pick up the Reach Guide.  Kahn will pick up the notes from one of his several interviews with the great pitcher, or he will refer back to conversations with sportswriters who watched him play a few dozen times a year.  Or, failing that, he'll go down to the Baseball Hall of Fame or the Baseball National Library to refresh his memory.  In any case he has the century covered:  he's 86, and he had more than a few beers with the guys who wrote up the games before he came on the scene.

Here, then, are some excerpts from The Head Game:
  • During the mid-1880s, when [Hoss] Radbourn had been pitching a complete nine-inning game every other day for three weeks or so, a reporter from the New York Clipper asked if he were not, perhaps, feeling a bit tired.  "Tire out tossing a little five-ounce ball for two hours?" Radbourn said.  One can imagine the spikes of his mustache twitching with contempt.  "Man, I used to be a butcher.  From four in the morning until eight at night I knocked down steers with a twenty-five-pound sledge.  Tired from playing two hours a day for ten times the money I used to get for sixteen hours a day?"  Radbourn stopped right there.
  • When [Christy Mathewson] published books and articles in later years, he insisted that he wrote his own stuff.  John N. Wheeler, a journalist and businessman who subsequently honed and syndicated articles by Winston Churchill, helped Mathewson polish his work.  But Wheeler told me at his home in Ridgefield, Connecticut, "I was, at most, Matty's editor, or rewrite man.  He knew how to write..."  [So maybe James, Thorn (and I) were wrong about this.]
  • "When I was a kid growing up," the columnist Jimmy Cannon said, "real New Yorkers rooted for McGraw's Giants.  The Yankees?  They played to tourists."
  • John Lardner, Ring Lardner's son, caught the reality of the major leagues with another less familiar verse:  Right or wrong is all the same / When baby needs new shoes / It isn't how you play the game / It's whether you win or lose. 
  • Of course, the lords denied that they had tampered with the game.  Later lords praised plastic grass.  You trust a baseball lord at your own risk.

The Head Game is a splendid little book, and you can pick it up cheap at a used book store (like I did) or on Amazon, like the hipster kids do nowadays.


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