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The Reading Life: The New Yorker's grand old game

August 9, 2011 | 10:58 am

This is part of the occasional series "The Reading Life" by book critic David L. Ulin.

Over the weekend, as the Yankees-Red Sox series at Fenway Park became increasingly excruciating, I found myself turning off the TV and picking up my iPad, where I had downloaded a digital-only collection of baseball writings, "At the Ballpark," via the New Yorker's app.

Featuring an introduction by Adam Gopnik, "At the Ballpark" showcases 13 pieces, as well as a suite of comics, spanning the nearly nine decades of the magazine's life.

Among the most striking is "The Little Heine," Niven Busch Jr.'s 1929 profile of Lou Gehrig -- not because it is particularly incisive (it isn't), but because of the easy way it recycles all the cliches about Gehrig's relationship with his mother, or, for that matter, with Babe Ruth, proving that even the New Yorker was once susceptible to the most sentimental of baseball myths.

It felt fitting to read "At the Ballpark" during a Yankees-Red Sox series, since eight of the 13 pieces here deal with one or the other of the two teams. Of these, the two finest fall to Boston: John Updike's epic "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," about Ted Williams' final game at Fenway ("Gods do not answer letters," Updike tells us, by way of explaining Williams' legendary diffidence), and Ben McGrath's "Waiting for Manny," a portrait of Manny Ramirez as a gifted headcase, in the twilight of his Red Sox run.

Here's McGrath on Manny:

According to lore, Ramirez has, or had, two Social Security numbers and five active driver's licenses -- none of which he managed to present to the officer who pulled him over in 1997 for driving with illegally tinted windows and the stereo blasting at earsplitting volume. "The cop knew who he was," as Sheldon Ocker, the Indians beat reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal, tells it. "He said, 'Manny, I'm going to give you a ticket.' Manny says, 'I don't need tickets, I can give you tickets,' and reaches for the glove compartment. Then he leaves the scene by making an illegal U-turn and he gets another ticket.

It's a great story, although for all its charms, not the best thing in the collection. That title goes to "Distance," Roger Angell's 1980 portrait of Bob Gibson, written five years after the St. Louis Cardinals' ace retired.

Angell opens with a description of Gibson's performance in Game 1 of the 1968 World Series, when he struck out 17 Detroit Tigers, finishing the game with a slider that broke so sharply across home plate that batter Willie Horton flinched. As Tim McCarver, Gibson's catcher in that game, remembers: "I can still see that last pitch, and I'll bet Willie Horton thinks to this day that the ball hit him -- that's how much it broke. Talk about a batter shuddering!"

Here we see what baseball writing at its most acute can do -- bring us inside the game, inside the moments, the stops and starts, the psychology. It can present our heroes (Williams, Gibson, even Ramirez) to us as real people: competitive, contradictory, difficult, alive.

To be fair, there's some filler here; I've never been a fan of Marianne Moore's poetry, baseball or otherwise, and a short piece on Hideki Irabu's translator -- while gaining unintentional resonance due to the former Yankee pitcher's suicide last month -- doesn't offer much.

But by Sunday night, with the Yankees dropping two out of three at Fenway, I was tempering my dismay by reading Susan Orlean on Cuban baseball, Jeffrey Toobin on the Mets and Bernie Madoff and especially Angell on the 2009 World Series champion Yankees -- a team that knew how to beat the Red Sox in the clutch.

-- David L. Ulin

Photo: The New York Yankees' Robinson Cano, center, looks to umpire Eric Cooper, right, who calls the Boston Red Sox's Dustin Pedroia, left, safe Saturday at Fenway Park. Credit: Michael Dwyer / Associated Press