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BASEBALL'S THORN OF PLENTY
T. Nicholas Dawidoff
June 15, 1987
With the publication of The Armchair Book of Baseball II, The National Pastime and The Pitcher, noted baseball historian John Thorn greets the 1987 season with three books that should delight and educate readers.
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June 15, 1987

Baseball's Thorn Of Plenty

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With the publication of The Armchair Book of Baseball II, The National Pastime and The Pitcher, noted baseball historian John Thorn greets the 1987 season with three books that should delight and educate readers.

As editor of The National Pastime, a splendid annual baseball history magazine; publications director for the Society for American Baseball Research ( SABR); and historical consultant to both the National Baseball Library and the Hall of Fame veterans committee. Thorn has become the acknowledged expert on the sport's early years. He adds this spring's offerings to his burgeoning list of titles, which also includes The Hidden Game of Baseball and The Armchair Book of Baseball.

The Armchair books, which carry on the anthological tradition established by Charles Einstein's three Fireside Baseball Books, are deftly culled collections of some of the best baseball writing ever. And The Armchair Book of Baseball II (Charles Scribner's Sons, $19.95) is in no way second-best to the first volume. It's hard to go wrong with great baseball writing, but Thorn has gone especially right with selections from the likes of Damon Runyon and Garrison Keillor, Walt Whitman and Philip Roth, Thomas Wolfe and Ted Williams, Andy Rooney and Bob Uecker, Roger Angell and Lawrence S. Ritter.

The consistently high quality offers something for everyone. Particularly palatable are excerpts from two of the best baseball novels, Eric Rolfe Greenberg's The Celebrant and Mark Harris's The Southpaw, as well as Charles C. Alexander on Ty Cobb and John Lardner on the Black Sox. There also are literary curiosities, such as Candy Cummings's account of his invention of the curveball and a pathetic 1877 letter from pitcher Jim Devlin, banished for taking a bribe. Thorn introduces each piece with crisp, trenchant, occasionally witty commentary. And while one wishes there were more Bernie Fuchs illustrations, the real problem may be that of climbing out of that armchair in time for work the next morning. Thorn founded The National Pastime for SABR in 1982, and the paperback anthology The National Pastime ( Warner Books, $3.95) offers a worthy selection of writings from the annual's first five years. Not to be missed are Ritter's interview with vaudeville and baseball star Marty McHale, Joseph Overfield's study of Westerns writer Zane Grey's short stories about baseball, and Robert Cole's story of baseball in the West Virginia hinterlands.

It must be noted, however, that the pocket-sized paperback is less inviting than the magazine. The photographs are either omitted altogether or are tossed into the middle of the book; the charts are cramped; and there is no artwork. Thus you should buy the book with the understanding that in the future you ought to subscribe to the magazine, which, if the writing continues apace, may one day serve as the most obvious source for, say, The Armchair Book of Baseball V.

Thorn doesn't just produce anthologies. Six years ago he began a book about pitching, figuring he could dash it off in a mere six months. Six years later, thousands of manuscript pages have been refined into The Pitcher (Prentice Hall Press, $19.95), co-authored by John Holway. This is the most up-to-date compendium of information on the game's most important position. Thorn freely admits that it's a bag of peanuts sort of book—reach in and take as much as you like, when you like. The years of research have produced a mound of gourmet goobers, such as the sagas of Bill (Cherokee) Fisher, who threw the first gopher ball, and Walter Brown, who, at 295 pounds, was the fattest pitcher ever.

There are learned assertions, such as that former Orioles catcher Elrod Hendricks was the greatest handler of pitchers, that the 1926 Athletics had the best staff and that Lefty Grove was the best pitcher ever. There's a listing of the likely inventors of just about every pitch. Also included are biographical sketches and charts on topics from runs saved to wins by age.

The last two (and best) chapters are largely devoted to the Jim Creighton Award, an alternative to the Cy Young given in memory of the game's first pitching star, who played from 1858 until he died tragically in 1862. Because the authors feel the 30-year-old Cy Young too often "rubberstamps" the biggest winner in each league, they devised their own complex critieria for the Jim Creighton. Consequently, Dave Stieb, who has never won a Cy Young, has four Jim Creightons—for the 1981, '82, '83 and '85 seasons. The biggest winners among the pre-Cy Young Award pitchers are Grove, with seven, and Walter Johnson, with six.

While the book is an excellent resource for baseball historians, it has only a biographical index, which makes it difficult for the reader to track down other information. You will be hard-pressed to discover quickly, say, who threw the first curveball (probably not Candy Cummings). Until you are familiar with the entire book, locating specific diamonds may be rough.

Such clucking aside, it is clear that Thorn's daunting knowledge and contagious affection for baseball do the game admirable service.

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