Advertisement

Column: A new baseball season brings back Updike, Brashler and Plimpton

Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS

So far, not so good this baseball season for those toiling on the South and North Sides and we who watch them, full of hopes (or delusions). But we’ll always have distractions, won’t we?

My Tribune colleagues Nina Metz and Shakeia Taylor recently offered a look at four films about baseball that are often overlooked. Those movies are “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings” (1976), “Hardball” (2000), “Mr. 3000” (2004) and “Sugar” (2008).

I like movies and I like baseball but I start every new baseball season by returning to old words, and so this year I reread “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings” because it was written by Chicago’s William Brashler, who also wrote other fine books, including a great novel titled “City Dogs” in 1976 and later (in collaboration with Reinder Van Til) 1991’s “Murder in Wrigley Field,” using the pseudonym Crabbe Evers. Brashler is a great writer.

Since Monday was April 1, I couldn’t resist visiting another “old friend.” His name is Sidd Finch and he was the greatest baseball player who never was, except in the mind of writer George Plimpton, who created him on the pages of the April 1, 1985, issue of Sports Illustrated.

Finch, whose full name was Hayden Siddhartha Finch, was a 28-year-old right-handed pitcher who was raised in an orphanage in England and learned how to pitch while traveling through the mountains of Tibet. He had never played an inning of organized ball, could throw a fastball 168 miles an hour with pinpoint control and had been signed by the New York Mets.

This had begun when the magazine’s managing editor, Mark Mulvoy, wanted a story about the history of April Fools pranks in sports. He gave the assignment to Plimpton, a prolific writer and the leading practitioner of participatory journalism, having written about his experiences in, among many things, professional football (“Paper Lion”), boxing (“Shadow Box”) and ice hockey (“Open Net”).

Unable to find enough pranks for a story, he concocted the Finch tale.

Covering 13 pages and peppered with photographs, it fooled plenty of people, with the Tribune sports desk receiving several phone calls from people wanting more information and more statistics about the pitcher. The story caused a sensation and a bit of outrage when the magazine took it a bit further by announcing in the following week’s edition that Finch was retiring. The following week it announced that it had all been a hoax.

One further problem was that the popularity of the story compelled Plimpton to expand it into 1987’s “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch: A Novel,” which proves that one can have too much of a good thing. Publishers Weekly wrote that “baseball fans will enjoy parts of this, but even they will feel cheated that there’s no real climax.”

Literature has ever shadowed baseball. There has been writing nearly as great as baseball writing in horse racing and in boxing, but baseball has topped all, ever since the time poet Walt Whitman observed, “I see great things in baseball. It’s our game — the American game.”

For many years — decades now — I have started every season with John Updike. In The New Yorker magazine in 1960 he wrote about Ted Williams hitting a home run in his last at-bat for the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park. It’s titled “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.” It is a masterpiece and I give you just this: “The affair between Boston and Ted Williams has been no mere summer romance; it has been a marriage, composed of spats, mutual disappointments, and, toward the end, a mellowing hoard of shared memories.”

I also come back to Jim Brosnan. Do you remember that name? He was a player for a time here, pitching for the Cubs (1954, 1956-58) and the White Sox (1963), and for other clubs elsewhere. He lived in the Chicago suburbs after his baseball career and that is where he died at 84 in 2014. But he is vividly alive on the pages of his “The Long Season,” a diary of the 1959 days he played for the St. Louis Cardinals and the Reds, published in 1960.

It was revolutionary, taking fans behind the scenes — from clubhouses to hotel rooms, dugouts to airplanes — with an intimacy that had never before been available on the sports pages. In his review of the book for the New York Herald Tribune, the great sports writer Red Smith called it “an honest book that furnished an insight into the ballplayer’s life which no outsider could possibly get … a cocky book, caustic and candid and, in a way, courageous.”

I’ll also suggest, along those insider lines, Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four.” And there’s plenty to like and admire in Bill Veeck’s “Veeck as in Wreck.” The innovative former owner of the White Sox was a voracious reader, a book a day his diet, and a stylish writer.

For my money, the greatest baseball novel is Bernard Malamud’s “The Natural” (1952), not to be confused with Robert Redford’s film “The Natural” in 1984. And also worth your time is the short story, “Alibi Ike,” written by Ring Lardner, once of the Chicago Tribune, and called by Adam Gopnik in the current issue of the New Yorker, “certainly the single funniest baseball story ever written.” He’s right and Lardner’s “You Know Me Al” should also be on your list. Then there’s Robert Creamer’s “Babe” and “The Universal Baseball Association, Inc. J. Henry Waugh, Prop” … and so many more.

rkogan@chicagotribune.com