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If you are even a merely casual fan of Major League Baseball—if you aren’t among those we keep hearing about, who have lost interest entirely, or one of the multitude of younger people who, we’re told, never have paid any attention to MLB—you will know that the 2024 season started earlier this week in an unconventional fashion. It began in South Korea, with a game between the Los Angeles Dodgers (featuring the great Shohei Ohtani, in Dodger uniform for the first time) and the San Diego Padres. The season will commence for the rest of the teams in a few days. Hence it is time, in this column, for a piece with a bookish baseball hook (or, in this case, a double hook). 

No one worth listening to would dispute the proposition that among all professional sports, baseball has inspired more first-rate fiction than any of its rivals; the competition isn’t even close. But when it comes to selecting books for a Top Ten list, say, the conversation becomes interesting. Almost any credible list would include Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, but beyond that we’d encounter a wide range of opinion. One of the best baseball novels I’ve read, The Fan (1995) by Peter Abrahams, rarely gets mentioned.

You may recall that I am a longtime fan of Abrahams’ wide-ranging fiction; I’ve read all of his novels and indeed have copies of them all. I am also a great admirer of the novels he started writing roughly fifteen years ago under the name Spencer Quinn, almost all of them in his splendid Chet & Bernie series, frequently mentioned in this column. Those books are wonderfully genial, and congenial. The Fan is very much not “genial,” but that’s so by intent—by necessity, so to speak, given the premise of the book, which centers on a very disagreeable fan, Gil Renard, and the baseball star he follows with pathological intensity, Bobby Rayburn, himself an egotistical jerk of the first order. It’s written by someone who knows the game of baseball very well (this is apparent in the Chet & Bernie books, too) but hates a lot of the talk about it. And it's as right-on today as when it was first published. It certainly is on my top-ten list of baseball novels.

Speaking of which, why doesn’t some sharp publisher reissue The Fan next year, marking its 30th anniversary? Ask Stephen King—author of another of the top-ten baseball novels on my list, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and also a great admirer of Peter Abrahams/Spencer Quinn—to write an introduction. 

Right around the start of the MLB season each year, from the period of Spring Training through May, there’s always a fresh crop of baseball books (ditto in the fall, as the World Series approaches, though they do pop up at other times as well). One new title I’m looking forward to, coming in May from University of Nebraska Press, is Perfect Eloquence: An Appreciation of Vin Scully, edited by Tom Hoffarth. Tributes such as this, featuring contributions about the legendary baseball commentator by “fellow broadcasters as well as historians, players, journalists, celebrities, and others connected to the game of baseball,” invariably include a lot of gush, but I expect there will be a lot of good stuff along with the cloying accolades.

I was just about to turn ten at the start of the 1958 baseball season; my brother, Rick, was seven-and-a-half. We were baseball fans, excited that the fabled Dodgers were moving from storied Brooklyn to Los Angeles, about twenty-five miles west from Pomona, where we lived with our mother and grandmother. Little did we know that our primary connection to the Dodgers would be Vin Scully, one of the best broadcasters ever.

Soon I had a “transistor radio” in the shape of a baseball—a birthday gift, one of my most treasured possessions. Rick and I had bunk beds, and we would often listen to the Dodgers there. I began to think that when I grew up, I wanted to be like Vin Scully, calling baseball games. In fact, of course, I was in most respects utterly unsuited for the job (just as, several years later, when I read Len Deighton’s novel The IPCRESS File and decided that I wanted to be a spy, I was ludicrously deluded). But my delight in and admiration for Scully never waned.

When I was older, I would sometimes jot down scraps of Vinnie’s commentary on a 3 x 5 notecard. While calling a home-game between the Dodgers and the San Diego Padres on April 26, 1980, he was reminded of his boyhood in New York, which prompted him to recall the idiom “rush the growler”: to hustle with a tin bucket to a nearby saloon for beer.

During a May 18 game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, he described the formidable hitter Bill Madlock making “small circles with the bat from the right side.” Noting the Pirates’ lack of a rarely varying set lineup (such as was then usual for championship teams), Vinnie quoted manager Chuck Tanner, “smiling and waving his hands,” who said “I play ’em all.” In the same game, speaking of the Pirates’ pitcher Jim Bibby: “Bibby looks in to Ed Ott, shuffling his cards behind the plate.” A game against the Cincinnati Reds, in Cincy, on August 8, 1980, was being played in “fire-escape weather,” Vinnie said; “you can wring this night out.” Every game elicited such commentary, wonderfully fresh, never pretentious or self-important, never straining for effect, always giving the listener a vivid sense of the moment.

I could go on and on, but you get the picture. Here in Chicagoland, we’re fortunate to have the excellent Pat Hughes calling Cubs games on the radio, and occasionally on TV. I’m looking forward to the season, as always.

John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books

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Image by Jake N. licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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