Most helpful positive review
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Best Baseball Novel
on October 11, 2000
I thought "The Natural" and the Kinsella books, "Shoeless Joe" and "The Iowa Baseball Confederacy" were just too dark and odd. Coover's "Universal Baseball Association" was so obsessive-compusive...
Until now, my favorite baseball novel was "If I Never Get Back", by Darryl Brock. This is a wonderful novel with a strong historical link to the 1869 Red Stockings, as the main character joins the Cincy team and travels with them throughout the East Coast and even off to San Fransisco. Add time travel, Mark Twain, buried treasure and a love interest, and this novel is a blast.
But I now have a new favorite.
"The Celebrant" by Erick Greenberg
I read about this book on various lists of great baseball books, but the plot always seemed to sound a bit weak. Well, it is a masterpiece. The research done by Greenberg to get the Mathewson baseball correct is sooo cool. From the details of the Merkle Boner to the Snograss Muff and the subsequent call-off of Merkle in favor of Chief Meyers by Matty... From Matty quitting in shame as manager of Cincinnatti after the Hal Chase debacle and enlisting for WWI to the Black Sox World Series of 1919. Game after game sounds like a current event. Very cool, very accurate stuff. This is early 20th century baseball as if you were there. Combine that with the insight into the title character's immigrant family and their establishment of their jewelry business and its intertwining with baseball. Add some wonderful prose. A true masterpiece.
Here's a favorite passage, describing Honus Wagner:
"Honus Wagner matched Mathewson for size, and in the infield he stood like a gnarled oak with bowed roots, his large arms branching nearly to the ground; with his oversized hands, he'd scoop up anything hit to his enormous range, gathering with the ball a large measure of infield dirt, and he would fling the whole package toward first base, debris trailing off like a comet's tail, the toss ever straight and true."
Another longer passage, on the difficulty of being Mathewson the hero. This was on the eve of Matty pitching the delayed game 7 of the 1912 World Seies at Fenway. All of the pressure of the failure of 1908 and the expectations of being Mathewson weigh on the great pitcher. Hugh Fullerton, the baseball writer, is talking to Kapp, the book's main character, who has just learned that Matty refers to him as the 'celebrant of his works' through his jewelry designs and gifts to the pitcher:
"Have you ever considered what he is to himself? What it's like to be Christy Mathewson? Imagine it. You know perhaps five hundred people by name, but fifty million know you. You make no more than ordinary demands upon people; you don't insist that the sandwich you order for lunch be the most marvelous sandwich ever made, or that the bootblack's shine dazzle the blind, yet the sandwich-maker and the bootblack and millions like them expect the superhuman from you, and finally they'll accept nothing less. Expectation becomes demand, and it extends to everyone and everything. You hear the crowd groan if you give up a single hit; they expect a no-hit game. Give up a run and people say you're off your game. Even your teammates turn to you to save them after they foul up the simplest plays. The writers make you a standard of excellence, and if a rival wins nineteen games in a row you're expected to win twenty. The world makes you a god and hates you for being human, and if you plead for understanding it hates you all the more. Heros are never forgiven their success, still less their failure." ... Fullerton put on his hat. "Matty told me you were once a pitcher. I suspect that your [jewelry design] work is infused with the wish that you were he. You're not alone. Inside every sportswriter there's a frustrated athlete, according to the old saw. Why not? The same thing is inside every fan, or anyone who ever picked up a bat and a ball. But Kapp, you ought to thank God that your arm went bum. It might be you in Gethsemane tonight."