The overwhelming majority of baseball books run pretty much to form. Aside from statistical tomes, Roger Angell collections and a few valuable historical works, the game's nonfiction oeuvre is confined to dreary reminiscences by aging sportswriters and broadcasters and a spate of yawn-inducing, blatantly self-serving, as-told-to player autobiographies. But two new books, both published by Diamond Communications, Inc., represent happy departures from the norm.
What is particularly refreshing about Joseph A. Reaves's Warsaw to Wrigley ($24.95) and Dave D'Antonio's Invincible Summer ($15.95) is that in each the author sets out on a quest only peripherally connected with baseball. Returning home after 13 years as a foreign correspondent, Reaves seeks to rediscover America. D'Antonio, a middle school history teacher recovering from a succession of personal setbacks, tries to find himself.
Reaves is the more polished writer. A journalist who had covered war and revolution in Asia and Europe, he decided upon an unusual career move in 1992, accepting an assignment as a baseball writer for his paper, the Chicago Tribune. He survived four seasons, three with the Cubs, one with the White Sox.
Although he was born in New Orleans, Reaves is an inveterate Cubs fan. As a reporter who had interviewed Polish president Lech Walesa, he was expected to bring a worldly perspective to the clubhouse and press box. He was quickly disabused of such notions when, upon being introduced as an expert on Poland to Ron Karkovice, a ballplayer "obviously...of Polish descent," he heard Karkovice say in typical baseballese, "F—Poland."
In fact, despite Reaves's enthusiasm for the game, he found life on the baseball beat otherworldly. He was astonished by how little ballplayers and, for that matter, sportswriters knew or cared about international or even national affairs. "A well-rounded baseball beat writer," Reaves concluded, "was someone who could also talk about basketball."
The players, pampered since childhood, their every need met by ball club functionaries, represented an even bigger affront to Reaves's cosmopolitan sensibility. "I never was able to come to grips with, or explain to readers, how easily most players themselves embraced the adulation as merely their richly deserved due," Reaves writes. "I had stood in the Great Hall of the People with Deng Xiaoping and walked through the gold-leafed palace of Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos. I sat down with Yasser Arafat, Lech Walesa, King Hussein of Jordan, and the leaders and opposition figures of a half dozen other countries from Bulgaria to Bangladesh. They all had massive egos.... But none was more cocksure, more narcissistic or egomaniacal, than most 25-year-old banjo-hitting baseball players I came across."
But Reaves is no snob, and he had a fine time on the beat. "I wouldn't have missed it for the world," he writes. In the end it was dissatisfaction with his employers at the Tribune Company (which also owns the Cubs) that caused him to leave both baseball and the paper late in the '95 season to move abroad again. As much as he loves his native land, particularly that part of it that is Wrigley Field, he sadly concludes that he is yet an auslander. "I don't know where home is," he writes. "I fear I will never know."
Dave D'Antonio, of San Leandro, Calif., is certainly no cosmopolite. In his curiously affecting little book, Invincible Summer, he comes across as a vulnerable naif. A fiercely loyal fan, he suffered mightily during the 1994 baseball strike. This disastrous event, coupled with "the loss of...half my life savings" in an investment scam, "a pair of painful romantic relationships" and the unexpected divorce of his parents, persuaded him to hit the road at age 34, in the spring of 1995. But not without a purpose, for D'Antonio set out to visit the gravesites of as many Hall of Fame ballplayers as he could find. "Cemeteries have always interested me," he explains. "I felt their peace and silence." Besides, by finding the past he would be "forgetting the present."
D'Antonio's odyssey led him through 43 states and 25,873 miles in five months. Most of the time he slept in his car, Nellie, and bathed in hotel pools. Along the way he stood reverently before the graves of close to 100 Hall of Famers.
D'Antonio faithfully, if briefly, recounts the careers and personalities of the departed immortals he visited, but what makes this book interesting is the author's own decidedly odd adventures. On his un-merry way he became involved in an angry traffic dispute with a mute, fell desperately in love with a woman he later discovered was a lesbian and, in a pique over past racism, urinated on the steps of the capitol building in Montgomery, Ala.