Saturday, September 25, 2004

Zisk Book Reviews by Michael Baker

The Meaning of Ichiro: The New Wave From Japan
and the Transformation of our National Pastime.
Robert Whiting. Warner Books, 2004.

‘I like to wing it,’ Valentine explained, ‘because conditions change from day to day.’

From The Meaning of Ichiro

Whiting, the author of this book’s non-official predecessor, You Gotta Have Wa, and the great The Chrysanthemum and the Bat, attempts to do the impossible here in his Ichiro: start a revolution without a cause. The book traces the emergence of Japanese players in the majors, looks closely at the historical, and often nasty, relationship between Japanese and American owners, deals with individual histories, and, best, defines the essential differences between American and Japanese baseball. These contrasts are found in preparatory techniques, baseball unions, and in definitions of sacrifice and teamwork. That many of the differences seem to be abstractly philosophical and that many of them seem too far from playing fields, you should still excuse the hyperbolic semantics of his full title. There really hasn’t been a “wave” of Asian ballplayers; nor, if there were, would the game be transformed. The meaning of Ichiro will remain hidden for at least another generation.

Parts of the book are excellent, valuable additions to the rich tradition of understanding baseball from the top down: understanding contracts, anti-trust laws, the relationship between unions and management, and the lives of the owners, insightful veins that are mined well. Equally impressive is the longish section on the gifted Seattle outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and his history with both his overbearing showbiz dad and the tortuous path through Japanese organized baseball. By the 1990s, Japan and its athletes had become less resentful towards outsiders and cultural influences from abroad; Ichiro, although relentlessly single-minded about hot pursuit of excellence (hours of training, ceaseless repetition of skills, no days off), begins to chaff under “indentured servitude” of the Japanese baseball system.

These sections about the training methods, about the influence of patriarchal nationalism evident at home and in society, and about the changing in Japan styles are well done, with dozens of pertinent quotes from both the participants and journalists. The book’s smaller asides surround the spirit of wa, and Japan’s reliance upon “loyalty, cooperation, and trust,” a collective harmonious embrace of selflessness. The exact correlation between this groupism’s deference to authority and Ichiro’s preternatural individual skills is really not discussed, nor is wa and the Japanese take on non-articulated employee contracts elaborated when such concepts have no bearing on the many individual players’ cases here narrated. In fact, connections are often lost or not taken up: much of the book’s second half is taken up with stringing together of the players’ bios and American experiences, journalistically and temporally, instead of thematically, and there is no cumulative point. “Player A came and was good for awhile; Player B came here and was a bust.” The book could have made clearer the decreasing difficulty for Asian players, but as it is, there is such paltry evidence. There really has not been a new wave, or a transformation.

Other difficulties arise from more serious problems: the book is breezy and informal, not the tone or style befitting a look at culture. Many of the so-called Japanese traits unique to that island don’t really explain Ichiro’s success or Irabu’s disappointment. The overthrowing and pitch count alluded to constantly should be analyzed with greater sampling. If gangsters and betting, as well, surround the game, it should be either footnoted or elaborated. There is much repetition of facts, as befitting a book that so often lacks direction. All baseball books need players’ stats at end; the pictures in the middle do not need the Yankee’s Matsui in a staged taxi photo shot. If this is a history where are the pictures of the Japanese greats? Also bewildering are the suppositions regarding whether Japanese majors could play. Bobby Valentine, a constant apologist and blowhard on the subject, suggests yes; the performance of these ten or so players here recently, otherwise.

The book, however, is invaluable as a coda of actual athletic performance to Whiting’s You Gotta Have Wa; there, many of these points—backward labor dealings; harmony and sacrifice—are elaborated upon. In fact, the entire story is more interesting as a backdrop to Asian-American relations in general since Hiroshima, just not two books’ worth. I will never need to see athletes compared to slaves again; I expect in a book of serious aspirations to have a partially annotated bibliography, not the citations listed here, many of which don’t match up to the quotations used in the book. I’m not sure, moreover, if Ichiro’s success is not partially based upon his father’s ridiculous and severe training regimen; if so perhaps abuse of children, mentally and physically, for the reason of a parent’s need for glory, should be examined, if not prosecuted. Just let the children play. That would be a transformation of our international pastime.

Babe Ruth: Launching the Legend.Jim Reisler. McGraw-Hill, 2004.

“You can’t describe him, you can’t compare him with anybody else. He’s Babe Ruth.”

Miller Huggins, quoted in Babe Ruth

Babe Ruth, braggart, bombastic denizen of brothels, and beer-drinking god, needs to be examined critically with each passing generation, as with FDR, Joe McCarthy, Paul Robeson; how each passing age confronts this athlete of gargantuan skills and appetites will partially be that age’s litmus test for morality. In Reisler’s biography, Babe Ruth, our hero is pigeonholed, as it were, into an uncomfortable twelve-month period of 1920. But what a year! Women’s voting, bars’ closing, Black Sox’s cheating, and the decade’s roaring—and, perhaps most memorably, Babe’s taking center stage in the Bronx, building a dynasty, stadium, and tradition, on his feminine legs. In terms of prior Babes, if Robert Creamer lionizes the subject in his masterly biography, and if Boston fans vilify, and if Hollywood twice brutalizes, here Reisler schmoozes Babe, acting as his winking, best pal.

But like starfish, Babe Ruth lacked a brain, and if 260 pages of watching a man child and his Id run amok defines your jollies then start here: the book does excellently when running through the season, game by game, but less fortunately when analyzing Babe’s relationship to his world. The historical backdrop is well attended, although often not in depth and pointless considering Babe’s lack of political engagement; the beleaguered manager’s portrayal, Hall of Famer Miller Huggins, is solid; the three-way American League pennant race, eventually won by the Clevelanders, is dramatic and exacting; and the fans’ love affair with the Sultan is vividly chronicled. The drama between the Giants’ McGraw and Yankee management is wonderful, as are the eye-popping mini-narratives of many of Babe’s game-transformative clouts, often beyond fence, stadium, and a writer’s imagination.

Life for Babe at the Ansonia Hotel where the new decade and the Yankee fans waited breathlessly for each new feat was too perfect; what was arduous were the players themselves, in the main stolen from Yankee accomplice and witless narcissist, the Red Sox’s Harry Frazee: a team of misfits, with surly veterans mixed uneasily with raw novitiates, all ready for collapse any given weekend away from home. Solid players were aplenty: Pipp, keeping Gehrig’s sack warm, centerfielder Bodie, and Peckinpaugh at short; the hurlers were even keener, if also, obstreperous, harder to handle: pugnacious Carl Mays, ancient Jack Quinn, and gentlemanly Bob Shawkey. In fact, Mays’s killing of Cleveland’s Chapman with a runaway pitch, and his later quarrels with Huggins and management, and Huggins’ futile quest to keep this staff together in September is the real spine of this narrative. By not having Ruth in the post-season, Reisler misses a sense of conflict, urgency, and resolution that would carry the book to less journalistic transparencies and evanescence.

Also missing is a proofreader. One time Waite Hoyt is 30 in 1929, but 31 in 1921; as with Cher, something is wrong. Also in error are the author’s casual disregards for the distinction between flout/flaunt; the first is what Babe does with convention, the second also refers to Cher. Baseball fans would be surprised to find that Leo Durocher, and his paltry 23 extra-base hits in three years, is considered a Yankee great. Nor in a book mostly about men should pronoun antecedence be ever confusing: one dangling he, and the logic of a paragraph could collapse. Baseball attendance may have soared in that year, but not to the degree constantly stated: averaging 16,000 did double the total of the year before, but the stadium was still half empty. Even emptier are those seats starting the next year, almost a decade before the Wall Street collapse: Reisler should mention the steady decline, culminating in average crowds of 8,000 a mere five years later. Yankee Fever? I doubt it. Equally jarring are asides that detail the influenza as being more devastating than the Black Death, or the rather pointless comparisons between Harding’s presidency with McKinley’s interrupted reign.

Perhaps because of the need to scrutinize Babe, and of course, America’s fascination with power, size, orphans, New York, and cartoony figures of uncontrollable urges, this should have been a more gripping story. Having baseball writers examine athletics vís-a-vís historical epochs, or having novelists wax rhapsodically and ignorantly about the game itself, are bad ideas. This was a swift read, and a good story, but sometimes the chronology is askew, highlighting connections that aren’t really there, and sometimes the prose is too “Gee!, Gosh!,” as when Babe “saves” the 1920 season and baseball from the 1919 World Series scandal, even if the scandal story broke in late 1920; or how after Chapman’s death the Bambino’s 43rd home run helped, for earnest Reisler, “[Make] everyone realize that baseball, just baseball, had returned for good.” Except for Mrs. Chapman and all of us Yankee haters.

Michael Baker teaches composition at New Jersey colleges, where his students write about their fierce hatred of the New York Yankees.

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