[6 February 2008]
Every serious baseball fan has their pick for the Best Game of All Time, and inevitably their judgment is clouded by team allegiances. As a Blue Jays fan, I’d probably choose Game 4 of the 1993 World Series, a thrilling 15-14 slugfest in Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium. Then again, I could be convinced to look just a few days later and pick Game 6, which ended with Joe Carter’s infamous series-clinching three-run blast.
But as great as that moment was, it was the second World Series deciding game to end with a walk-off home run. In his new book, Jim Reisler argues that the Best Game Ever was the first: Game 7 of the 1960 World Series between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the New York Yankees.
Reconstructing the game from radio broadcasts, newspapers, the box score and interviews, Reisler paints a generally gripping portrait of this classic battle of “blue collar versus blue blood”. The 1960 Pirates and Yankees were a diverse group of characters comparable to Roger Kahn’s Boys of Summer, and players like Yogi Berra, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford and Roberto Clemente all receive their due attention. Reisler devotes a chapter to each inning of the game, a format uniquely suited to the deliberate pace of baseball, and expertly captures the gradual build that make such an important game so exciting.
He also manages to convincingly recreate the era, capturing the importance of the World Series at a time when the three most popular American sports were baseball, horse racing, and boxing. (They’ve since been replaced by football, NASCAR, and basketball, only one of which is a downgrade.) Nevertheless, there are times when he allows his affection for the past to cloud his judgment.
That The Best Game Ever is sentimental isn’t any surprise, not only because baseball is an inextricable slice of Americana, but because Reisler himself was a two-year-old future Pirates fan in 1960. However, too often he lets his nostalgia sour him on the present day game, and his snark-riddled asides detract from his achievement.
Lamenting the state of the 21st century youth, Reisler fondly recalls that in the ‘60s there were no such things as iPods, cell phones, Xboxes, and other technological gizmos that today hijack whole childhoods. In that less cluttered world, kids were freer to improvise, “playing baseball in vacant lots or stickball in the streets”. Certainly there are drawbacks to the increasingly sedentary lifestyle many children lead, but in passages like this, Reisler comes across as the type of tiresome curmudgeon who believes childhood amusements were perfected between his fifth and ninth years. Everything earlier was cruel asceticism, everything since is wanton excess: envy the newborns of 1958.
Elsewhere, Reisler gripes about changes to the game itself, including an attack on the expanded wild card playoff system. When the owners of Major League Baseball’s 28 teams voted to adopt the current format in 1995, there was only a single dissenter: George W. Bush, who was as wrong as you’d expect. Oddly, in all of Reisler’s complaints about the modern game, I don’t recall a single instance of the word “steroids”.
If this book’s faults were limited to the commentary on the present, they could be forgiven. Yet even when Reisler keeps his focus on 1960. I found myself scribbling in the margins. Emphasizing the Pirates’ status as loveable underdogs, Reisler follows up convincing arguments for New York’s overwhelming superiority by commenting that despite “7-to-5 odds favoring the Yankees,” Pittsburgh “had a legitimate shot at a win.” But 7-to-5 odds are essentially even, and so this feels like a cheat, undermining his earlier claims.
Some of Reisler’s broader historical analysis is also suspect. When he calls the demise of the Negro Leagues “the end of a truly sorrowful chapter in baseball history,” I’m sure his heart’s in the right place, but the existence of the Negro Leagues was only a problem because it was a symptom of racism in Major League Baseball and in America at large. Depending on your perspective, this was either remedied with the official integration of baseball in 1947 or remained a problem until the Boston Red Sox reversed its odious club policy and signed a black free agent in the 1980s.
Or, racism remains a problem in baseball just as it does in the rest of the country – does anyone honestly think Roger Clemens is going to face the same treatment Barry Bonds has endured over his alleged steroid use? – and is likely to be remedied around the summer of 2216. At any rate, the utter collapse of the Negro Leagues was a sad, albeit inevitable and necessary, occurrence that just made it easier for generations of marginalized ballplayers to be forgotten.
Still, this book’s failures are generally limited to its peripheral aspects. When Reisler focuses on the game itself, his knack for storytelling takes over, and he convincingly recreates the sights and sounds of October 13, 1960. Game 7 was just the sort of back-and-forth affair that makes for great spectacle, and inning-by-inning, pitch-by-pitch Reisler is able to ratchet up the tension to the point where even readers intimately familiar with the game’s outcome will be thrilled.
Particularly effective is the way he places retrospective quotations from the key players within his account of the game’s action. This instills what would otherwise simply be an excellent ballgame with a deserved degree of gravitas that’s able to convince me, someone hostile to the Yankees, indifferent to the Pirates, and born over two decades after the game’s final pitch, that this may well be the finest stretch of nine innings in the sport’s history.
There really is very little to complain about in the bulk of Reisler’s narrative. My only wish is that his prose would elevate the key plays in the same way his research does. It’s difficult not to compare Reisler’s account of Bill Mazeroski’s climactic homer to Don DeLillo’s depiction of Bobby Thomson’s Shot Heard Round the World in the first chapter of Underworld. Here’s DeLillo:
Russ feels the crowd around him, a shudder passing through the stands, and then he is shouting into the mike and there is a surge of color and motion, a crash that occurs upward, stadium-wide, hands and faces and shirts, bands of rippling men, and he is outright shouting, his voice has a power he’d thought long gone – it may lift the top of his head like a cartoon rocket. The Giants win the pennant.
Admittedly this isn’t a fair comparison. Reisler never produces such electric prose, but nor does he aspire to. It may also be unfair to compare the freedom of a novel to a strictly historical account, and yet The Best Game Ever also pales in comparison to last year’s best non-fiction sports book, Michael Lewis’s The Blind Side, which opens with a breathtaking account of the injury that ended quarterback Joe Theismann’s career. “From the snap of the ball to the snap of the first bone is closer to four seconds than to five,” writes Lewis, before counting the “Mississippis” of a schoolyard game and describing the chaotic action in each of the four seconds before Lawrence Taylor’s devastating hit.
Mazeroski’s home run is one of the most famous moments in baseball history, and it deserves such treatment. Instead Reisler gives us this, “Crossing the plate, Mazeroski was engulfed by fans and teammates. It was pandemonium, an explosion of joy, Pittsburgh’s version of Times Square on New Year’s Eve, of New Orleans at Mardi Gras.” This isn’t bad writing, and perhaps Reisler’s appreciation of the event’s importance forces him to exercise restraint rather than to get in the way with showy prose. That might be the right decision for him, and it certainly works within the context of the larger book, it’s just that I wouldn’t mind reading the same play filtered through DeLillo or Lewis.
There are certainly better ways for a literate baseball fan to spend their time, yet for all its faults, The Best Game Ever does a great service to history by preserving the details of this tremendous Game 7. Should a better historian one day decide to put this game into its proper historical context, and give it the type of rigorous analysis it warrants, Reisler’s work will be an essential resource.