Thursday, July 15, 2010


Watching the baseball All-Star Game Tuesday night, my mind wandered…back, back, back to the distant past, and another kind of All-Star game, one I played myself as a kid, lots of times.

This one was a board game—All-Star Baseball by Cadaco. It consisted mainly of a cardboard baseball diamond and a spinner, over which you placed a disc for each player in your lineup, in turn. The circle’s 360 degrees were divided into 15 or so parts, each representing an outcome for a time at bat. For example, “1” was a home run, “2” a groundout, “3” a base-on-error, “4” a fly out, and so on. You’d flick the spinner and record outs, base moves and runs as chance dictated. All the rules of baseball applied.

Described like that, it doesn’t sound like much of a game. It certainly wasn’t by the standards of today’s electronic marvels, which, I’m told, include “virtual” contests as vivid as the real things. Really, though, I remember the board game as captivating. On each disc was the name of a notable player, and its divisions conformed to his career batting statistics. When, say, you had the National League All-Stars, and Stan Musial was your batter, his chances of hitting a single, double, triple or home run—or making an out—were the same as they’d be in real life.

What’s more—and more important—when Stan was on your team, he was YOUR man. You could see him in the batter’s box, in his menacing, coiled stance, waiting like a cobra to strike at the next pitch. It was theater of the mind, a common exercise in those radio days, and at least as real as anything today’s computer mavens can produce.

Further interest could be gained by mixing lineups. Most of our games matched the then-current National League All Stars (circa 1948) against the Americans, but you could obtain discs from players of previous eras and use them as you chose. Thus, your first baseman could be Johnny Mize, and your centerfielder Ty Cobb. Or Tris Speaker. What talent at your call! What fun!

You’re only young once but you always can be immature, so I reached for pen and pad and began to jot my own All-Star lineups, unfettered by the calendar. The effort was a bit taxing because comparing players of different eras is difficult. I subscribe unreservedly to the idea that today’s baseball players—and other athletes—are better than those who went before. That’s because of advances in nutrition and exercise physiology, and because today’s high salaries enable jocks to be jocks—and train--- year around. But some of the old-timers could play in any era, and deserved attention.

My All-Star first basemen are Lou Gehrig for the American League and Albert Pujols for the Nationals. Gehrig is a BMT (before my time) guy, but his stats reveal a power hitter with few peers, and he was a real gent to boot. Still, I’d give the nod to Pujols, the game’s current monster, who averaged almost 40 homers a year in his first nine Big League seasons against higher-powered pitching than Gehrig faced. That last thing is what most distinguishes the current game from that of the past.

At second base I’d have old-timer Rogers Hornsby for the Nationals and Rod Carew for the Americans. Hornsby was the best right-handed hitter ever (with a lifetime average of .358), and can’t be ignored. Carew was a good glove and great singles guy, albeit not as good as Ichiro in the latter department. If Ichiro played second base I’d slot him here. Alas, he’s a right fielder, where the competition is tougher.

At third base I’d have Mike Schmidt for the Nationals and ARod for the Americans, edge to the latter. The steroids use of ARod and others muddies one’s judgment about some present-day stars, but we’re playing a board game here so I’ll shelve that issue for now. The NL shortstop would be Honus Wagner, the best player of the 1910s, with Cal Ripken for the AL’s, edge to Honus. If I were picking a team in the playground I’d choose Ozzie Smith, the best glove man ever, as my shortstop. But only hitting counts in the Cadaco game, so Wagner’s da man.

At catcher I’d have Johnny Bench for the NLs and Yogi Berra for the Americans, edge to Bench. My NL outfield would have Barry Bonds in left, Willie Mays in center and Hank Aaron in right. Their AL counterparts would be Ted Williams, Cobb and Babe Ruth. Edge to the AL, if only because of Ruth. He was the best baseball player ever, a great pitcher as well as a great hitter. His power numbers were astonishing for his time; in 1920, when he hit 54 home runs, the entire American League hit only 369. His contemporaries must have thought he was an alien.

Pitching didn’t count in the board game, but I picked some nonetheless: Walter Johnson for the AL and Warren Spahn for the Nationals. Johnson pitched before speed guns, but could hum ‘em anyway. “Something went by me that made me flinch,” said Cobb (who was not much given to complimenting foes) of his first at-bat against the young “Big Train.” Johnson won 417 games, with mostly mediocre Washington Senators’ teams, and finished an amazing 531 of his 666 career starts with a 2.17 ERA. ‘Nuf said.

Lefty Spahn never won a Big League game before age 25, but wound up winning 363 of them. I once shared a cart with him at a celebrity golf tournament and was charmed by his friendly manner and nonstop dumb jokes.

If you’d like to play the game I’ve outlined, or one of your own devising, you can; an Internet scan reveals that Cadaco (or someone) still is out there selling them. Some things, though, are better left to the imagination.

Friday, July 2, 2010


One of the best things about life these days is the website Through it you can order just about any book ever written, usually at prices well below those at which it originally was offered. Even some of my old books still are kicking around on it, one for as little as 69 cents. Shipping, of course, is extra.

I mention this not to promote my chestnuts but to recommend other books you may have missed the first time around. The joke has it that the shortest book ever was “Great Jewish Sports Heroes,” but any reputable list of sports books worth reading would be shorter yet. The four to follow belong on it, and in any proper sports-book library. Check them out on Amazon and you won’t be sorry

The first is Volume 1 of “Boxiana,” by Pierce Egan, one I’ll bet none of you has read. Egan-- born 1772, died 1849-- was perhaps the first modern sportswriter. His specialties were boxing and horse racing, the dominant sports of his day, but in writing about them he also chronicled the racy side of the London he knew, and with style and flair. Dickens was said to have been influenced by him. So was A.J. Leibling, whose great, later-day book on boxing, “The Sweet Science,” was in part a tribute to the Englishman who invented that phrase.

Many another common sports-page usage can be traced to Egan; remember that today’s cliché originally was thought to be brightly apt. He coined the adjective “game” to denote fortitude, a “set-to” was a fight, “stuff” meant skills, and a fighter who was knocked down was “floored.” Most people think the word “fan” is short for “fanatic,” but it ain’t. It stems from Egan’s milder word “fancier,” which he helpfully defined as “any person who is fond of a particular amusement.” In Egan’s prose, the fight crowd was “the fancy,” no matter how fanatical it might be.

“Boxiana” is a four-volume compilation, published between 1818 and 1824, but Vol. 1, at a hefty 497 pages in paperback, will give you an ample sample of Egan’s oeuvre. It’s worth perusing even though the pugilists he writes of are long forgotten.

The segue from the first sportswriter to the best moves us easily to Walter Wellesley Smith, known universally as “Red, ” whose prose graced American sports pages from 1928 until his death, at age 76, in 1982. Two excellent books recall him: “The Red Smith Reader” (Random House, 1982), and “Red; A Biography of Red Smith,” (Times Books, 1986), by Ira Berkow, a Smith colleague on the New York Times.

Should one first read the writer, or read about him? The former, probably. “Reader,” a collection of Smith’s columns, shows his range across the sports spectrum as well as the command of language and deft, lively touch that made his work stand out even in the part of the newspaper that gives writers their best showcase.

Unlike many of his colleagues past and present, Smith didn’t regard his subjects —or himself—with undo seriousness, and while he saw them warts and all he usually managed to find something likeable about them. In “Reader,” I recommend especially his piece on “Papa Bear” George Halas, which in about 1,000 words renders that profane, cheap, irascible, determined gent as roundly as others could in a book-length treatment.

It’s tough to write about writers because their work-a-day activity is anything but dramatic, but Berkow’s biography shows Red at work as well as could be done. Berkow was helped by the fact that few people have written or spoken as well or amusingly about writing as Smith.

“I’ve read about Flaubert rolling on the floor for three days, groping for the right word,” Smith said. “I haven’t rolled on the floor. I can’t afford three days. I’ll blow two deadlines if I do.” He joked on another occasion: “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and open a vein.”

My last recommendation is a quite-different sort of work-- “Heaven is a Playground,” by Rick Telander, which I recently reread after a gap of 30-or-so years. Telander, now a Chicago Sun-Times sports columnist, was just out of Northwestern in the summer of 1974 when he took his pony tail, note pad, camera, tape recorder and middling jump shot to Foster Park in ghetto Brooklyn to hang with the teenaged hoopsters who frequented the place. The result was a portrait of the boys and their relationship to basketball that’s yet to be matched.

Despite its upbeat title, “Heaven” is a sad story. Telander’s playground kids may have been wise and tough in some ways, but they were remarkably naïve in others; even Manhattan, a 20-minute subway ride away under the East River, might as well have been in another country. Their lives were so circumscribed by their circumstances—and the expectations they engendered—that they saw basketball as their sole “way out,” and not much of a way at that. Telander emphasizes that point by interweaving their stories with those of such New York playground legends as “Fly” Williams, “Goat” Manigault and “Helicopter” Knowings, whose manifest talents were undermined by the chaos inside and around them.

Have things changed much at Foster Park and places like it since the book was published in 1976? Not for the better, I fear. From what I see and read, “hoops dreams” are as alluring now as they were then, while surer but less sparkly paths go untrod. One wishes that “Heaven” were out of date, but it doesn’t seem to be.