Luke Salisbury's The Answer Is Baseball (Times Books, $15.95) is a probing, idiosyncratic study of answers to baseball questions. For Salisbury, a good answer is not one that contains a simple point of trivia, but one that reveals information that "branches out and illuminates the game's history and humors." What does that mean? Well, in answering "What did Roger Maris do in game 154?" (the game in 1961 in which he had his last chance to break Babe Ruth's record without an asterisk appearing next to his name), Salisbury launches into a cultural, historical and psychological examination of Maris's performance. In his last at bat, he faced knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm with two out and nobody on in the ninth. "Is there a better emblem for the tricks of fate than the uncertain fancies of the knuckleball?" writes Salisbury. Um, probably not. The Answer is Baseball also relates the story, which is not found in either Baseball Anecdotes or The Man Who Stole First Base, of an impromptu boxing match between Brooklyn Dodger pitcher Hugh Casey and Ernest Hemingway. Salisbury doesn't merely recount the fight—which Casey was winning until Hemingway kicked him below the belt—he also points out the similarities in the suicides of the two men. The author's active mind makes The Answer Is Baseball an eclectic read, to say the least.
A fight between another Casey (this one Mighty) and heavyweight champ John L. Sullivan is the centerpiece of Frank Deford's Casey on the Loose (Viking, $17.95). The novella describes various events that led up to baseball's most famous strikeout. A shorter version of the story appeared in the July 18, 1988, issue of SI.
Two baseball novels, Prospect ( Houghton Mifflin, $17.95), by Bill Littlefield, and The Comeback Kids (St. Martin's, $18.95), by Bob Cairns, couldn't be more different, but both are worthy additions to the sport's literary canon. Prospect is a touching, simply told story of a retired major league scout who is rescued from his feelings of uselessness when he finds one more youngster capable of making the bigs. In The Comeback Kids, members of two Little League teams reunite 35 years later to play their canceled Little League World Series game. The book could have been saccharine, but it is profane and funny, with fully developed comic characters, like leftfielder Blinker Ballard, who was a "great Little Leaguer, then his hormones kicked in and by comparison baseball became a pretty dull sport."
Two writers who lend their statistical expertise to Total Baseball are also represented by works of prose. Bill James's horribly titled This Time Let's Not Eat the Bones (Villard Books, $22.50) is more aptly described in the subtitle: Bill James Without the Numbers. Culled mainly from his Baseball Abstracts, this hodgepodge contains some classic cranky James, like his evisceration of Enos Cabell: "This wee ballplayer...can't play first, can't play third, can't hit, can't run, and can't throw." But James's faults as a writer, in particular his tendency to beat a metaphor to death, are glaringly apparent in this format. Next time let's hope James lets his prose live with the numbers.
The third baseball collection of Thomas Boswell's writing, mainly his columns for The Washington Post, is entitled The Heart of the Order (Double-day, $18.95), and the book doesn't have a dull page. Of the Chicago Cubs' near win of the pennant in 1984, he writes: "When Tim Flannery's ground ball trickled into right field, knifing under Leon Durham's glove and through his Cub heart, baseball's decade of romantic good luck was finally snapped." Among the best pieces is a long look at last year's Baltimore Orioles, Boswell's home team, which got off to an 0-21 start. For all-around reading satisfaction, The Heart of the Order is the best of the bunch.