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Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville: A Lifelong Passion for Baseball Paperback – May 17, 2004
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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 intellectuals 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 (its 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 --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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Since this is a book of essays, there's little coherence to the whole. A die-hard baseball fan will likely not care. For the less committed fan, it'll probably be an enjoyable "snack" book - read bits here-and-there as suits your tastes.
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. In between these two marvelous selections are pieces as diverse as a lengthy tribute to THE AMAZING DUMMY (about both the often overlooked exploits of Dummy Hoy and also the role of nicknames in baseball) and FREUD AT THE BALLPARK, a very brief piece about how the author finally came to terms years later with the loss of the 1955 subway series by his beloved Yankees to the hated Brooklyn Dodgers.
The book is composed of four sections. The first is REFLECTIONS AND EXPERIENCE, which is comprised of thought pieces about various aspects and events of the game. The second is HEROES LARGE, SMALL, AND FALLEN, which includes pieces on Mickey Mantle, Dusty Rhodes, Mel Allen, Jim Thorpe, Joe Dimaggio and "Shoeless Joe" Jackson in addition to the selection on Dummy Hoy; of course all these selections are about much more than the individuals profiled and their impact on the game. The third section is titled NATURE, HISTORY, AND STATISTICS AS MEANING. It examines some of the myths of baseball and such questions as "why no one hits .400 any more" and whether Joe Dimaggio's 56 game hitting streak really was an achievement in a class by itself. The last section is simply entitled CRITICISM. It is a collection of some of the best topical book reviews which Gould wrote, which are always a taking off point for an elegant discussion of some aspect of the game.
Despite the fact that I consider the great majority of the essays in this collection to deserve five star ratings, there are several factors about the book which kept me from rating it five stars. First, with the exception of Halberstam's foreword and Gould's introduction, these are set pieces all of which have appeared elsewhere and thus suffer from repetition of some of the author's favorite musings and ideas. (I suspect that given his death the editors were less ruthless than he would have been about correcting this flaw.) Second, some of the pieces are slightly dated and the reader is left to wonder how Gould would have responded to recent events impacting the sport (e.g. the undoubted effect of questionable substances on the obliteration of power hitting records in such areas as home runs and slugging average). Last, in a collection of this length and this diversity, it is almost inevitable that a few of the selections will suffer in comparison to the best of the group. Even if this reaction is only due to my preferences and prejudices as an individual reader, it still is a factor that influenced my overall reaction to the book. While there are several pieces that I found very memorable and/or educational (some of which I have in fact reread), others seemed only of average quality compared to the work of other good sportswriters. So I heartily recommend the book with the caveat that most readers will probably want to take time to savor some of the pieces while quickly browsing others. But practically everyone will reflect that we are all undoubtedly the richer for the unique insights furnished us by Gould as he managed to combine the knowledge gained from his lifelong career as a paleontologist with his passion for the game of baseball.
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