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Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville: A Lifelong Passion for Baseball Hardcover – March, 2003

3.8 out of 5 stars 21 customer reviews

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Amazon.com Review

The late Stephen Jay Gould was a man of strong opinions--and not just about evolutionary theory and paleontology, the subjects of fine books of his such as Ever Since Darwin and Wonderful Life. Just get him going on baseball, as readers of his long-running monthly column in Natural History magazine will remember, and sparks would fly.

Baseball, Gould writes in this collection of diverse essays and reviews, is an intellectual’s game, but only accidentally so; plenty of smart folks like other sports. In his case, though, baseball was the game to follow, for he grew up in the New York of the 1950s, when the city had "the three greatest teams in major league baseball." Two of those teams later moved far away, but Gould nursed his passion into adulthood, all the while acquiring plenty of ammunition for sophisticated arguments about every facet of the game. In these pages, for instance, he weighs in on such eminently arguable matters as the greatest player the sport has known (Ty Cobb, maybe), the greatest single game ever played (game six of the 1975 World Series), why it is that no one hits .400 these days (it’s a matter of statistics, but so much more too), and whether the current system of postseason playoffs is a good thing (no).

The sport has had few more learned and literate fans than Gould, who brings his best to these pieces. Celebrating triumphs and mourning tragedies on and off the diamond, this book makes just the right companion for the new season, and for the seasons to come. --Gregory McNamee

From Publishers Weekly

This collection by the famed paleontologist and evolutionary biologist (who died in 2002) of what he modestly called his "baseball scribblings" displays the skill that made Gould a renowned explicator and a beloved popularizer of science. Gould's central claim, "although I may be an academic by trade, I write primarily as a fan," is given biographical background in a wonderful introductory essay on the set of "accidents" in his personal life that led to his lifelong affection for baseball, as well as how "a dedication to a distinctively American sport" provided "the major tactic for assimilation" in the 1940s and 1950s for young Jewish men like Gould. The other essays are grouped into four areas. "Reflections and Experience" includes another great new essay on the glory of New York stickball, and a few looks at the ignominious inability of the Boston Red Sox to win the World Series. "Heroes Large, Small, and Fallen" features long profiles of Mickey Mantle and the obscure but legendary William "Dummy" Hoy, a skillful and savvy early ball player who was also deaf. "Nature, History, and Statistic as Meaning" showcases Gould's amazing and detailed proof that New York Yankees slugger Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak in 1941 "was, statistically, the most unusual and unexpected great event in the history of baseball." His chapter "Criticism" focuses on books that reveal to Gould the sport's "joys and lamentations." Overall, this is a glorious testament to Gould's remarkable insights and passionate writing.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (March 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393057550
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393057553
  • Product Dimensions: 9.7 x 6.2 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,274,501 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Tucker Andersen VINE VOICE on November 20, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book should provide plenty of enjoyment for every baseball fan and all the devotees of the late essayist Stephen Jay Gould. While I will touch on the flaws later (because in some ways the totality of this posthumously published collection of Gould's essays is less than the sum of the parts), this is a wonderful book to sample at your leisure. Many of the pieces manage to be thought provoking and incredibly nostalgic at the same time. One of my favorites in this regard was an incredibly brief piece (The Babe's Final Strike) originally published in the NY Times in 1984 regarding the strikeout of Dale Mitchell by Don Larsen to complete the only perfect game in World Series history. It revived both my memory of watching those final moments on our small black and white TV on October 8, 1956 after arriving home from high school late in the game and also recalled the controversy that raged over the strike three call by Babe Pinelli that both guaranteed Don Larsen a place in the record books and also ensured that particular film clip of Yogi Berra jumping into Larsen's arms the status of perpetual inclusion in world series highlight collections.
One of the best pieces in the book is actually the introduction by David Halberstam, a good friend of Gould's, a fellow intellectual, and an ardent baseball fan himself. It is literally the perfect bookend for the last selection in the book, a wonderful reprint of a long piece in the NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS which manages to incorporate a meaningful summary review of ten diverse baseball biographies into a discussion of the elemental attraction of baseball, the parallel changes in the sport and our culture while mixing grandiose generalizations with little known facts.
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Format: Hardcover
Stephen Jay Gould was a marvelous paleontologist, but also an ardent follower of baseball. He even appeared in Ken Burns' "Baseball" documentary. As a boy, his favorite team was the NY Yankees, and he was once beaten up by some fans of their opponents, those lovable bums, the Brooklyn Dodgers. His heroes were Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio, and he writes about them as elegantly as DiMaggio himself prancing gazelle-like across the outfield, scooping up flyballs.
This book collects three dozen of Gould's baseball essays. He writes about things like the umpire Babe Pinelli, who called the final strike of the perfect game that Don Larsen pitched in the 1956 World Series. The final pitch was technically outside the strike zone, but only by a few inches. But, considering the context (both a World Series and a perfect game on the line), Pinelli thought that the batter - Dale Mitchell - should have at least made contact, perhaps to tap it foul, because questionable pitches can go either way. Afterward, Mitchell groused that the ball was not a strike, and Gould perceptively concludes that Mitchell was right, but Pinelli was righter.
Also included in this collection is Gould's famous essay about why no one hits .400 (batting average) anymore. What he argues is, curiously, there are no more .400 hitters because players in general are all much better.
As an avid baseball fan and Yankees lover, I enjoyed this book a lot. Any book that re-lives the memory of the ball going through Bill Buckner's legs in the 1986 Mets-Red Sox World Series, thus giving new credence to the Curse of the Bambino, has my gratitude.
The problem, though, is that Gould was not around to oversee the final assembly and publication of this book.
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By A Customer on March 23, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Stephen Jay Gould was a teacher and entertaining friend to me through his wonderful writings for more than 20 years. His passing last year saddend me, but this last love letter to the game he loved makes me appreciate him more than ever. His tremendous gift for being simultaneously a guy in the stands with a hot dog and coke, yet still the analytical investigator (garnered, I suppose from his experience as a Yankee fan and Red Sox ticket holder) created superb insights into the game of baseball on a human and scientific level.
As always, he seeks to gently teach his reader by taking them along on his journey. This is a book to read over and over, and to keep for those who share his affection for our Pastime.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is a compilation of baseball-related articles that Professor Gould wrote over the years for the NEW YORK TIMES, AMERICAN HERITAGE, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL and THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS. <BR
Many of these articles are "set-pieces." By that I mean Gould repeats parts of one article in another. For instance, as a child, Gould played stickball in the streets of New York City. This crops up over an over again. He also uses stickball as an explanation as to why so many intellectuals (Bart Giamati, George Will, David Halberstam to name a few) are/were so addicted to baseball. He disavows the notion that baseball imitates life or vice versa. His explanation is that many of these men played baseball as kids and are partial to the game.

Gould examines such issues as why there are no longer any .400 hitters. Gould's explanation is that the standard deviation between the best players and the poorest has lessened since the .400 hitters were in evidence. Later on he discusses sports biographies, using such professiorial words as "hagiographical" and "quotidian" to describe the two kinds. The first concentrates on the player's exploits on the field; whereas, the other would emphasize social commentary and the player's personal life. The quotidian sort of bio took center stage with Jim Boutin's BALL FOUR and has been imitated ever since.
Although he's spent most of his life in Boston, Gould has also been a Yankee fan since he was a kid, and as such, his favorite player has always been Joe Dimaggio. Gould considers Joltin' Joe's fifty-six game hitting streak the greatest achievement in the history of baseball, despite the fact that Joe did it twice actually, once as a player in the Pacific Coast league.
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