The Hardest Thing In the World to Do Is Hit a Round Ball with a Round Bat and Then Write About It
Let’s face it: writing is hard. Writing about baseball, being so emotionally and socially loaded, is even harder. Writing about other writing about baseball . . . well, that’s nearly impossible. With a few saving graces, Richard Peterson’s Extra Innings narrowly avoids being a mere information kiosk.
The subtitle is perhaps a bit misleading. Rather than a collection of essays about baseball, it’s more of a reference guide to other baseball writing already written, but Peterson does make a couple of stabs away from mere retrospective directory assistance with the first and final chapters. The first, “Soaking Clete Boyer”, is an unspecial account of his first few trips to Cooperstown and the subsequent unhappy awakening to “the truth about Cooperstown: its carefully buried secrets, its shameful abuse of history, and its insidious seduction of loyalty and honor.” The last, “How to Write a True Baseball Story”, is a complete and moving parable which culminates in a ghost’s fairy tale beginning “A long time ago, when the game really mattered, there were three boys, let’s call them brothers, who loved baseball.” It’s especially impressive given how difficult the task is after an entire book of picking and poking at what seems like every attempt at baseball writing since the game’s birth: a guy spends 146 pages pointing out what not to do when writing about baseball, what’s wrong with everyone else’s work, and then he has the guts to spend the last 10 pages having a go at it himself? This better be good, bud.
And it is extremely good. That last chapter deserves to be read by absolutely anyone who cares about baseball and its literary representation. I only wish I could say the same about the rest.
It’s difficult to contextualize I’ve been in love with the game since I was 11, and was around the professional side of it for years during junior high school through mid-college as a batboy and assistant clubhouse manager for the Tidewater, then Norfolk Tides, AAA affiliate of the New York Mets. I’ve also got an MFA in poetry, and my life is now almost completely devoted to the written word, so I feel like I should have loved this book. But I haven’t read much baseball literature, and I think that’s where we miss each other. I’ve only seen a few movies The Natural, Field of Dreams, Eight Men Out, Cobb, and Bang the Drum Slowly which were based on some of the books under Peterson’s discussion. Perhaps I’m not well-prepared to experience this work, but then again that should tell you something: if a hydra-like baseball, writing, and reading fanatic like me has trouble entering the book, then the book must be very hard on human patience.
The thing is, the book drags. Redundant, monotonous, and formulaic, it has a good bit in common with some of the work Peterson himself criticizes. It’s difficult for me to imagine many people who would slug through the eleven chapters unless they’re familiar with much of the literature Peterson surveys. For the most part, each of the nine chapters focusing on others’ writing reads like a rambling cookie-cutter essay: a fairly sharp opening paragraph and thesis followed by an often rapid-fire, mind-numbing presentation of book “A” which is quickly summarized and critiqued, then book “B” which is quickly summarized and critiqued, on and on and on, example after example dragged out and disposed of, finally wrapping up in a closing paragraph echoing the first’s sentiment, essentially ending up not far at all from where we started.
It’s good form, good procedure, but while I can deal with not liking someone’s work, I can’t pass over not learning much from it. What we are left with is more survey than sojourn, a very methodically assembled stack of brief opinions. But Peterson is an excellent tour guide and surely deserves a great deal of credit: he’s done his homework, and he’s undertaken an unforgiving effort about an unforgiving game.
Incredibly well-read, Peterson presents and maybe that’s enough some important and interesting notions about how writers frame the game of baseball. Chapters two and three deal with a sort of literary mythologizing of baseball, creations of dream narratives, and their symbolic, emotional force. But I have to say that chapter four is just about the most boring read of my life, mere summaries and slight critiques of the first written histories of baseball. Following is the same for modern histories of the game, most enlightening for its sociological perspectives on how fans engage in an exercise of civic pride. Six and seven give us more stop-and-go traffic, delving respectively into short and long fiction, while chapter eight criticizes much baseball fiction for using African-American characters in such a way that “their experiences have often been perceived as important not in themselves but as moral or historical lessons for whites,” which is one of the rare and refreshing instances where Peterson actually attaches all these dusty, yellowed pages to something other than more baseball and more books. Following is an introduction to more postmodern techniques: “kiss-and-tell biographies . . . revisionist and mediated histories, and . . . subversive fictions.”
For a less specialized reader, along with “How to Write a True Baseball Story”, chapter 10 is perhaps the only necessary and practical chunk of writing in the book. It could be a short article on the sports page on Opening Day, a condensed defense of what he believes to be the nine greatest baseball books ever written.
My largest complaint is not about Peterson’s perspectives of the game’s mythological, emotional, psychological, racial, social, historical, or overly romantic elements for those are really quite good it just seems that the same few points are being made over and over concerning an endless stream of books. My distaste for the book is not at all in its substance, but its surface, its structure it’s a beautiful house with a ratty door. A baseball lover can surely “get something out of” this book, as long as he or she is prepared to slog through a stack of broken records.
In his preface, Peterson tells us “Though an academic by training and career, I’ve tried to write my essays on baseball writing with a minimum of critical apparatus. I see these essays as a conversation with other writers rather than a critical text and the quotations as part of our conversation.” Okay, so the book is a conversation, but it’s a frustrating and usually dry one, probably due entirely to its too-procedural rhythm and structure. It’s not without its merits, but I wouldn’t give this one much more than a handshake unless I was very well-read and madly in love with baseball.
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