The book: “Keepers Of The Game: When The Baseball Beat was the Best Job on the Paper”
The author: Dennis D’Agostino
The pitch: Once upon a time, we came across the 1992 book, “Baseball — The Writer’s Game,” by Mike Shannon, which allowed such baseball scribes as Creamer, Goldenbok, Honing, Kinsella, Okrant, Thorne and Ritter to explain the game as they saw it, from behind their typewriters.
We’ve also found “Ring Around the Bases: The Complete Baseball Stories of Ring Lardner,” and found some great context in his accounts of what it was like covering the game in his day.
When D’Agostino decided it was time to give baseball scribes in the last half century one last shot at telling their glory days, he picked the right group. Because after this cluster has typed the end code “=30=” on their last stories, there probably isn’t a much more compelling group who could tell about those good, not-so-old days.
Co-author of “Through a Blue Lens: The Brooklyn Dodger Photographs of Barney Stein, 1939-1957” in 2007, and also “Garden Glory: An Oral History of the New York Knicks” in 2003, D’Agostino knows the subjects as well as anyone, having worked for the Associated Press (when he got a Baseball Writers Association of American card for the first and only time in 1982) and then in public relations for the Mets and Knicks.
We trust D’Agostino and his New York connections to collect the memories that are most important — why was the beat such a powerful thing to have, and what happened to it? In the preface, D’Agostino writes:
“The baseball writers whose careers began in the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s epitomize a time when the beat writer was the unquestioned primary source for any and all baseball news, opinion and analysis. That world doesn’t exist anymore … The baseball beat writer endures, but the job is no longer the best at the paper, the one position that could go unchanged and unchallenged for decades. …
“Today, anyone with a computer and an opinion can proclaim themselves a baseball writer. But the men whose careers were rooted in teletype machines and ten-team leagues were the game’s last true custodians and guardians, yielding a singular influence that would be unthinkable today.”
D’Agostino, the Fordham grad and husband of L.A. Times Hockey Hall of Fame writer Helene Elliott, makes sure to include such L.A. longtimers as the L.A. Times’ Ross Newhan and the Long Beach Press-Telegram’s Gordon Verrell.
Unfortunately, the late Bob Hunter or late Matt McHale weren’t around to be part of the lineup. And even though Jim Murray and Alan Malamud were BBWAA card holders — Murray’s in the Baseball Hall of Fame writer’s wing — it’s really the day-to-day grinders on the beat who carry the torch here and tell their self history. Nine of them are winners of the Hall’s Spink Award.
Dave Anderson, the iconic New York Times writer who figured out that he was the last writer to leave Ebbets Field following the Brooklyn Dodgers’ final game in 1957, does a magnificent job setting the table in the forward. Then it’s up to the memories of scribes like Murray Chass, Peter Gammons, Maury Allen, Hal McCoy, Tracy Ringolsby, Phil Pepe, Bill Madden, Stan Hochman and Rick Hummel.
The slickest way to read it is likely by skipping around, revisiting the names of those bylines you remember and want to listen to again. The best is to finish it learning something new about a writer who maybe you only recognized as a byline in the The Sporting News but come to realize he loved the game and his job as much as the others.
The template for this book, D’Agostino readily admits, is Jerome Holtzman’s 1973 classic “No Cheering In the Press Box,” (which we are fortunate to own a first edition, thanks to finding it back at the now defunct “Sports Books” store in West L.A.)
So why mess with perfection? It’s also D’Agostino’s choice of who’s included and who isn’t — and he explains the absence of Bill Conlin, unfortunately. No qualms here about that.
This group shouldn’t have to fade quietly under the noise of today’s writers pounding out Tweets, texts or Touts with their thumb power. They’ve captured the glory of their times, just in time.
And keep to heart a quote from Bob Hertzel that D’Agostino pulls out before the contents is a classic description: “I never lived a normal life. But I lived the life I wanted to live.”
More to know:
== An MLB.com blog post by Keith Olbermann reflecting on the passing recently of Stan Isaacs, the first person in “Keepers” to write his story.
== Another related book to find: “Between the Bylines: The Love and Loss of Los Angeles’ Most Colorful Sports Journalists,” by Doug Krikorian (The History Press, $21.99. 285 pages), with this review in the Long Beach Press-Telegram.