I’m grateful to the editors of First Things for the invitation to take up this column, which will appear on Friday every other week. (The words “whatever subjects suit you” are a powerful inducement.) However it works out, I’m confident that my tenure will be longer than Quinn Norton’s at the New York Times or Kevin Williamson’s at The Atlantic.
When you reach a certain age, as I have, everything reminds you of something (and often of someone). Thinking about this column, I remembered a day in 1990, around this time of year, when I saw an unfamiliar logo on the shelf of Bungalow News in downtown Pasadena, where I was a very regular customer. I hadn’t heard anything about First Things, but I bought that first issue, and I’ve been reading the magazine ever since. Just a few months later—in August—the Gulf War began, a turning point from which so much of our subsequent national history has proceeded.
In 1990, Wendy and I had been married for twenty-two years, and three of our children (who turned twelve, nine, and six in the course of that year) were still at home; our eldest (twenty years old that September) was at Middlebury. I was working as an editor for a publisher of reference books (a job in which I continued until partway through 1994, when Christianity Today hired me to start Books & Culture).
Across Colorado Boulevard from Bungalow News in the next block was Vroman’s (where I had worked for a while), an independent bookstore still going strong today. A few yards down the street, flanked by Nardi’s (a gay bar) and the Beijing (a small restaurant run by a husband-and-wife team who had come from China to the U.S. as post-docs in physics but who preferred owning their own business), there was The House of Fiction, a paradise of used books inexpensively priced, nonfiction as well as fiction, presided over by Bill Tunilla.
I had met Bill a dozen years earlier, when he’d opened the store at its original location a couple of blocks north, on Walnut. Soon we were close friends (our kids grew up in his store). Bill was the son of a Lithuanian father and an Irish mother, passionately Catholic, and he’d been educated by Catholics through high school. As an adult he’d left the faith, yet he was still indignant about the changes in the Church post–Vatican II. He was one of the kindest men I’ve ever known, one of the most congenial spirits. In his store (where battered and filthy easy chairs sat midway), I met an extraordinary range of characters: brilliant autodidacts, obsessive bores, recovering academics, street people who’d once acted at the Pasadena Playhouse, aging film people who were immensely grateful when someone recognized them, and the occasional current celebrity. (I once saw Richard Feynman browsing the shelves.) Of course there was always a store cat.
It was Bill who introduced me to Anthony Powell and Indian food and Czech New Wave films and much more. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary movies and had graduated from film school in Britain (where he wanted to stay) after taking an undergraduate history degree at the University of Illinois and doing his required stint in the army. Back in the U.S., working as a film editor in advertising (an “industry” that drove this gentle man to fury), he looked for a way out; a small legacy enabled him to start a bookstore. Whatever else he was reading at the time, he usually had a Trollope novel handy, in a neatly fashioned cloth bag just the size for a smallish volume.
Bill and I both loved baseball, loved to talk about it and read about it. If you had been in Pasadena on Opening Day in 1990, and if you also loved baseball, you might well have stopped by his store. He had a tradition of setting up a display of baseball titles, to be unveiled when the season began. In addition to a rich selection of used books, he tried to include a handful of recently published ones. Sometimes there was a theme (one memorable year, Latin Baseball). Propped next to the books were huge photos of Sandy Koufax (elegantly following through on a pitch) and a menacing Don Drysdale (evidently about to deliver a brushback).
Bill had to close his store in the late 1990s. He died a few years ago. The section of Colorado where The House of Fiction once stood has long since been gentrified. (First Things, we can be thankful, continues to flourish.) Even so, in the course of any given year, I keep track of new baseball titles that might reasonably show up in the version of Bill’s annual display that I periodically restock in my mind’s eye.
Two such books have recently come into my hands. The first is Tinker to Evers to Chance: The Chicago Cubs and the Dawn of Modern America, by David Rapp. You do not even have to be a baseball fan to know that, until the Cubs won the World Series in 2016, they had not managed to bring home the championship since 1908. What you may not know is that between 1906 and 1910—during which they were National League champions four times and World Series champions twice—the Cubs won more games over a five-year span than any other team in the history of major league baseball, including several generations of fabled Yankees.
At the heart of this dynasty was the double-play combo of shortstop Joe Tinker, second baseman Johnny Evers, and first baseman Frank Chance, immortalized in a 1910 ditty by the writer F. P. Adams (later one of the Algonquin Round Table crowd). Originally published under the title “That Double Play Again,” it began: “These are saddest of possible words: / ‘Tinker to Evers to Chance.’ / Trio of bear cubs, and fleeter than birds, / Tinker and Evers and Chance.”
Rapp tells the intersecting stories of these three players and others (on the field and off) who played a part in the dynasty and more generally in what he describes as the “revival” of baseball after the 1890s, when the professional game was “ruled by roughneck players, bloodthirsty fans, and smug, conspiratorial owners,” with attendance decreasing each year. More ambitiously, but less persuasively, he seeks to show “how baseball and America changed alongside each other, merging reality and myth to form a uniquely American folktale.” To tell the truth, I’m not even sure what Rapp is claiming in that last sentence, but his book is a must for anyone with a serious interest in baseball history. Maybe, given the appeal of the present-day Cubs, Rapp’s book will draw some readers into that inexhaustible subject for the first time.
Susan Jacoby’s Why Baseball Matters is a very different sort of book. When I’m flying somewhere by myself, I almost never initiate conversation with the person sitting next to me, nor do I reply (if my seat-mate seems inclined to talk) in a way that encourages conversation (though I try not to be positively rude). But there are exceptions. On a flight a few years ago, I was reading Peter Morris’s excellent Catcher (on the evolution of that position in professional baseball’s early decades). My seat-mate saw what I was reading and asked about it. He turned out to be a fan as well, and we had a very enjoyable time.
Reading Jacoby’s book is rather like talking with an unusually well-informed fellow lover of baseball, one who moves easily from personal baseball memories to arguments about what ails the game (if indeed there is cause for worry). On many matters she and I are in agreement (she rightly excoriates MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred for his obsession with speeding up the game); on others we differ. But that’s not really the point. What matters is the quality of the conversation. This little book (which will certainly merit a space in Bill’s Opening Day display for 2019) would make an excellent gift for a friend or loved one partial to baseball, especially if he or she relishes a good argument.
Talking about these books has made me think of others. Somewhere down the road, a column on baseball fiction might be worth doing. In the meantime, I need to find out how the Cubs are faring in their home opener.
John Wilson was the editor of Books & Culture from its first issue (in 1995) to its last (in 2016).