My first book for the Year of Baseball is Donald Honig’s Baseball America. It seemed appropriate to set the stage with some history of the game, and Honig is known as “one of America’s most prominent baseball historians.” Other books by Honig include The American League, The National League, Baseball When the Grass was Real, Baseball’s 10 Greatest Teams, and more. (None of which I’ve read yet, sorry to say.)
While I’ve read quite a few books about baseball, this one I more or less avoided, even though I had a copy sitting on my bookshelf for the past few years. It used to lurk in the back corner next to another unread classic – The Glory of Their Times – but something got into me last year and I think I let go of Glory. (A move I now regret. However, I may be wrong about this, as I haven’t plumbed the back reaches of my baseball shelf yet.) I’m not sure why I did not pick this up earlier. Perhaps because I’ve already read other baseball history books, so this was not going to be a fresh story for me. Perhaps because the cover wasn’t so attractive. Perhaps because it seemed like “an undertaking, at just over 300 pages.
Well, for the Year of Baseball, I finished Baseball America a couple of weeks ago, and have to say that it was a pretty good book. It covers the history of baseball from the beginning, is detailed but not overly detailed, and nicely sets the history of the game in the context of the times. I thought Honig covered the early giants of the game, such as McGraw and Mathewson, Cobb and Mack, particularly well. He gracefully conveyed the progression of the game, the gradual changes over the passage of time, and also touched on the way baseball mirrors life, from the early promise of youth to the unavoidable failures of age, such a short period of time for everyone, but especially for a ballplayer. It’s an acceleration of life. I often find myself thinking of that, when the promising young rookie arrives on the scene. They get a brief moment in the sun, perhaps, and then the game moves on.
Honig’s book is concise, well paced, and at times excellent. The section on Jackie Robinson was especially well done, as was his portrayal of Grover Cleveland Alexander. The book seemed a bit weaker as Honig approached more recent history. It seemed to flag in sharpness, detail, and thoughtfulness, and it seems a bit as if Honig has written this part more out of an effort to be complete than out of real interest or enjoyment. I’ve seen this happen in other histories, where the stronger early material seems like the impetus for the book, and the latter part of the story is more of a workmanlike completion.
Or it could be, in this case, that the recent history is too near at hand, and Honig lacks sufficient distance to relate the story with the same depth given the earlier days. Either way, I quibble. On the whole, this was a thoughtful and considered work, written with authority and deep knowledge of the game. If you are looking for a book that covers the history of baseball from the very beginning, this would be a good choice.