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America's still-favorite pastime is revitalized in two volumes by heavy hitters Babe Ruth and Albert Spalding.

By Gregory McNamee

MARCH 16, 1998: 

Babe Ruth's Own Book of Baseball, by George Herman Ruth (Bison Books). Paper, $9.95.

America's National Game, by Albert G. Spalding (Bison Books). Paper, $19.95.

WAR HEROES, astronauts, explorers, and pioneers may come and go, but the keepers of the American cultural-canonical pantheon will, it seems, never evict Babe Ruth. The legendary baseball player has been the subject of hundreds of books and movies (most recently The Babe, starring John Goodman in a startling likeness of the lumpy, hard-living player) and will doubtless fill many more recitations of his great achievements--many of them, like the reputed game-saving homerun that Ruth dedicated to a sick boy, apocryphal.

Ruth himself suffered a troubled boyhood and an adulthood filled with violence, alcoholism, and excess. We learn little of these matters in Babe Ruth's Own Book of Baseball, ghosted by sportswriter Ford Frick and originally published in 1928, at the height of Ruth's fame. Instead, Ruth's pages are filled with homespun homilies straight from the Dale Carnegie and Horatio Alger school of positive thinking, on the art of the game. Much of Ruth's advice remains useful for today's would-be stars of the diamond:

Pitchers--real pitchers--learn early that their job isn't so much to keep opposing batsmen from hitting so much as it is to make them hit at someone. The trouble with most kid pitchers is that they forget there are eight other men on the team to help them. They just blunder ahead, putting everything they have on every pitch, and trying to carry the weight of the whole game on their shoulders. The result is that they tire out and go bad along in the middle of the game, and then the wise old heads have to go out and rescue them.

Youngsters of his time were enthralled by Ruth's old-fashioned wisdom on how to hit the ball, catch the ball, throw the ball; and some of the current crop of well-paid players might learn a thing or to from the modesty that is so evident in his reminiscences, whether genuine or the invention of a hired pen. Whatever the case, because Ruth ranks among the finest players the country has ever produced and knew his game intimately, this book belongs on the shelf of every baseball fan.

Folklore has it that the game Ruth mastered was born Athena-like from Abner Doubleday's thoughtful brow in 1839. Doubleday did many things; he won Civil War battles and built the first cable-car line in San Francisco. But, Albert Spalding notes in America's National Game, first published in 1911, baseball is an adaptation of a New England game called town ball, itself an adaptation of the English game cricket, which is impossible for anyone but the English and their recent colonials to understand. Having thus acknowledged our debt to England, Spalding--who founded the sports-equipment company that still bears his name--takes pains to distinguish our national virtues from those of the mother country:

(The English) play Cricket because it accords with the traditions of their country to do so; because it is easy and does not overtax their energy or their thought..... Base Ball owes its prestige as our National Game to the fact that as no other form of sport it is the exponent of American Courage, Confidence, and Combativeness; American Dash, Discipline, Determination; American Energy, Eagerness, Enthusiasm; American Pluck, Persistence, Performance; American Spirit, Sagacity, Success; American Vim, Vigor, Virility.

Spalding's pages are marked by such saber-rattling, which arrives in such volume as to shake down a fortress, of the kind of thinking that brought Jimmy the Greek so much trouble late in life. Still, he doesn't shy away from writing at length about the game's dark side in his time, notably a string of scandals in the late 19th century that make the infamous Chicago Black Sox fiasco of 1919 (see John Sayles' movie Eight Men Out) seem modest by comparison. Spalding's impartiality in writing about these troubling matters is an added virtue of his encyclopedic book. Chest-puffing Americanism aside, America's National Game is full of noteworthy asides and a keen sense of historical detail, and makes for fine reading. In fact, it offers better entertainment than much of what passes for baseball today.

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