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Baseball's new literary companion
05/05/2008 12:50 PM ET
When Lee Gutkind wrote a book about Major League umpires in the 1970s, he threw a curveball of controversy into the game and saw how baseball and the burgeoning art of creative nonfiction were perfect partners for the page.

Gutkind, along with co-editor Andrew Blauner, is back with another baseball book, "Anatomy of Baseball" (SMU Press, 210 pages), and this one is a collection of 20 essays that hit hardball from all angles.

Seventeen new pieces were compiled and three already-published classics were woven into the framework of what Gutkind calls the book's "connective tissue" of stories about the game.

"I gave this a great deal of thought," Gutkind said. "I did not want people to tell me how much they either hated or loved baseball. I knew there were plenty of people sick of it and many who think it's the greatest thing going.

"But the idea was to get really terrific writers to focus in on a single aspect of the game, whatever that might be, and really flesh it out to a point of great detail so people who love it connect to it and people who don't 'get' baseball can see what is so terrific and memorable and challenging about it."

Gutkind got what he asked for and more, attracting baseball writing legend Roger Angell, pulling out a three-year-old gem from award-winning veteran sportswriter Frank Deford, plus getting unique perspectives from political correspondent Jeff Greenfield and baseball historian John Thorn.

He also unearthed a jewel in the form of an old essay about the demotion of aging and slumping players by the late George Plimpton, as well as new and exciting material from unexpected places.

Stefan Fatsis, for example, wrote about getting his "perfect" glove restored by Rawlings.

Susan Perabo imagined a world in which she had a long, memorable career as a woman in the Major Leagues.

Baseball Bookshelf

Sean Wilentz contributed a piece in which he conjured the thought of a baseball fans' Hall of Fame replete with cowbells, frying pans and other instruments of well-worn enthusiana.

"It was exciting to figure out the concept for the collection," Gutkind said. "You just don't call up and say, 'Write an essay about baseball,' because then there's no connective tissue.

"So it's not only which essays you choose but how you place them. We think about basketball as the city game these days, and to me baseball was, for 150 years, the city game in America. Now kids go to basketball because it's easy to find a court and easy to find a game. It used to be, a century ago or 50 years ago, that's the way it was with baseball.

"And that's one of the reasons so many people read about baseball. We have this rooted tradition and history of it being their city game and the way they made friends long ago, and the way they connected with their dads and uncles."

But not every writer in "Anatomy of Baseball" is a salty scribe with decades of press box time.

Gutkind, who teaches a writing workshop at Arizona State University, came across two submissions for the collection from his very own class -- something he never would have expected "in a thousand years," he said, especially when he "rejected hundreds of pieces."

Gutkind said he told his students, who were all poets and fiction writers, to go to the nearby ballparks of the Cactus League during Spring Training and come back with stories.

He ended up getting a fascinating tale from student Jake Young about the imported light standards at Phoenix Municipal Stadium -- you'll have to read the book to find out more about it -- and another piece from Caitlin Horrocks.

Another unforgettable submission is Michael Shapiro's true story of the Southworths, a father and son connected to baseball and World War II and the diary that spelled out their heartbreaking connection.

And to top it all off is a foreword by one of the masters of baseball's spoken word, Yogi Berra.

The book has received rave reviews from three of the most respected baseball authors of the last 50 years: Robert W. Creamer, Robert Lipsyte and Jonathan Eig. It's also been featured on NPR's "All Things Considered" and excerpted in The Wall Street Journal.

Gutkind said the natural combination of America's pastime and creative nonfiction continues to make his job easy.

"The world is incredibly complicated, and people are less interested in fantasy and more interested in fact and truth," Gutkind said.

"Sports and baseball, especially, works for this. Some of the most interesting people have been baseball players. And there's story-oriented tension in almost every game that's been played. You can't really go wrong with baseball."

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.