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twilight of the long-ball gods

15 August 2005

Twilight of the Long-ball Gods is a new collection of John Schulian's baseball writing, remarkable for its intense but unsentimental identification with the emotional trials of men who work at play for a living. If the title seems to promise another book laden with nostalgia about the days when the grass and the bats and players were organic, the contents show that it's still possible to write about a lost era without too large a side order of schmaltz.

Schulian's Twilight is a mix of short newspaper columns and longer magazine pieces written from the 1970s through the early 2000s. The connecting theme is that all these pieces are about ballplayers on the margin. Watching the 1973 World Series, Schulian writes not about Willie Mays or Rollie Fingers but about his friend George Theodore, a .219 lifetime hitter making his one indelible appearance in the history books. Writing about the California League in 1986, he gravitates to the hapless orphaned San Jose Bees, a team assembled out of low-hope exports from Japan and last-chance washouts from the American major leagues.

Schulian's favorite topic is Bill Veeck. Schulian got to know Veeck best when the legendary owner was clothing the White Sox in short pants in the 1970s, and the writer was a columnist for the Chicago Daily News and the Sun-Times. Veeck incorporates everything that Schulian loves about the game: a never-say-die approach, intellectual humanism, chutzpah, and irrepressible optimism.

Love for these qualities shines through Schulian's moving portrait of minor-league slugger Russ Morman, whom Schulian meets at a distinct downtick in his career. Schulian loves the minors more than the majors, Legion ball more than the minors, and the sandlot more than anything else at all. It's not that the grapes are sour in the bigs, exactly, but that they can be so much sweeter when hope is yet to be fulfilled.

A former player in college and amateur ball, Schulian is most importantly a lifelong fan who has not allowed professional sportswriting to dull the edge of his love of watching baseball. He writes perceptively about fandom, in pieces about celebrity fans like George Thorogood and Studs Terkel. His kinship with Bill Veeck comes overwhelmingly from a sense that Veeck just plain liked to watch the game. One of the most telling pieces in this collection is a late-life encounter with Veeck, exiled from ownership, showing up at Wrigley Field to watch a team his father owned in a park that he helped to build. There will be no more like him, and though some bitterness creeps into some of Schulian's assessments of the present-day game, what one mainly takes away is the glow of having seen the great days of the 20th century.

Schulian, John. Twilight of the Long-ball Gods: Dispatches from the disappearing heart of baseball. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.