A Baseball Book for Big Thinkers

Last month the Boston Red Sox dropped out of playoff contention, losing their wild-card berth to the Tampa Bay Rays after leading them by nine games three and a half weeks earlier. For any other team, this would have been a late-season swoon of epic proportions, but by Red Sox standards, it was fairly ordinary. While I didn't tear any hair out over it personally (I'm a Yankees fan, and a casual one these days), it did remind me of a favorite book from childhood, one that I'd be pleased to recommend even to non-sports fans.

The Answer is Baseball is a fairly obscure little volume first published in 1989; its author, Luke Salisbury, is a sportswriter and community college professor in Boston. Framed as a book of non-trivial trivia, it aims to pose questions that illuminate the very soul of the game. (Salisbury draws an elaborate parallel between good trivia questions and the catechism.) More broadly it's a literary exploration of baseball, of a kind that may help explain to the skeptical why so many nerds adore the sport. The reflections on statistician Bill James take on renewed interest in this autumn of Moneyball, while the final chapter, on the longstanding rivalry between the Yankees and the Red Sox, contains the most poignant account of Boston’s various collapses that I've ever read.

Salisbury, still smarting from his team's 1986 World Series loss to the Mets, walks the reader through the full, infamous inning that culminated in Bill Buckner's muffed ground ball. "I was like a child watching a horror movie," he remembers; he knew the worst would happen, yet he couldn't turn the TV off. His helpless frustration, recounted play by agonizing play, is enough to move the most hardened Yankees fan to pity. For good measure, Salisbury also recounts Boston's equally notorious regular-season meltdown in ‘78 and their historic missed opportunity in the ‘49 World Series. In the process, he transmutes his heartbreak as a fan into a larger meditation on Boston and New York, on the character of the two cities and their relative places in the cultural imagination. Where New York is ultra-capitalist and effortlessly predominant, Boston is "stylish” and “neurotic"; the tragic ironies that beset their beloved ballclub are downright Sophoclean.

As a whole, The Answer is Baseball is one of those genuinely idiosyncratic books that somehow, through a stroke of un-Bostonian luck, managed to get published. At times it reads more like an Intro to Literature survey course than a sports book, but even the more overwrought passages are part of its charm. (To Salisbury, baseball cards are Proustian “cardboard madeleines,” while the ruthlessly competitive Ty Cobb is the twentieth century’s answer to Captain Ahab.) In exploring the cultural and spiritual dimensions of the game, Answer is as effective as such staples of the fan's canon as Ken Burns's Baseball documentary and Updike’s “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.” If a volume like it appeared today, I doubt any major press would take a chance on it, but as the World Series approaches, I hope some of my readers will.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, user Olsin.se.]

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