- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 22, 2003

Several recent books should help keep rounders fever alive in these parts while Major League Baseball dillies and dallies over the no-brainer issue of moving the Montreal Expos to the Washington area.

“The Seasons” by Bill Gilbert ($23.95, Citadel Press, 363 pages, illus.) — The author, a Gaithersburg resident and former public relations man for the expansion Washington Senators, should be getting the hang of writing books by now. This is his 20th, with subjects varying from Carter administration official Bert Lance to high school coaching legend Morgan Wootten, and Gilbert does it with his customary thoroughness and smooth writing style.

The idea this time is to spotlight 10 memorable seasons ranging from 1945, when the customarily downtrodden Senators nearly celebrated the end of World War II by winning a pennant, to 2001, when stars like Cal Ripken, Mark McGwire and Tony Gwynn ended their careers; Barry Bonds defied probability by hitting 73 home runs; and baseball helped the nation regain some semblance of normalcy after the horrors of September 11. “Americans wrote history in those years, and so did baseball players as the nation and her national pastime became partners in history,” Gilbert explains in his introduction.

If you don’t happen to believe that what happens between the white lines often reflects American life in general, well, that’s your problem. Too often, perhaps, baseball has been seen and eulogized as a metaphor for life, but Gilbert finds and relates some striking parallels.

My favorite section details the unbelievable National League pennant race of 1951, which ended just as unbelievably when Bobby Thomson hit a home run that carried both himself and pitcher Ralph Branca to horsehide immortality. No matter how many times you’ve read this stuff, hairs might still prickle on the back of your neck when New York Giant Thomson steps into the batter’s box to face Brooklyn Dodger Branca at the Polo Grounds in Harlem on the afternoon of Oct.3, 1951.

How long ago was it, really? Gilbert reminds us that as Thomson’s swat headed toward the left-field stands at 3:44 p.m., it was still necessary for most Americans to dial numbers on a telephone, swelter all summer in non-air conditioned homes and clack away on manual typewriters. And if you had two television sets, you were considered rich.

Throughout the book, Gilbert puts the seasons, events and settings in perspective with a welcome touch of hindsight — and does so with flair and class.

“The Teammates” by David Halberstam ($22.95, Hyperion, 217 pages, illus.) — Despite Halberstam’s justly acclaimed talents as a reporter and writer, this slim volume emerges as a profoundly depressing work for readers of a certain age.

All of us like to remember our sports heroes in the flower of their youth and strength, but Halberstam wrenches us the other way. He tells how Ted Williams’ superb Boston Red Sox teammates of the 1940s and ‘50s, Dom DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky, traveled 1,300 miles by car from Massachusetts to Hernando, Fla., in the fall of 2001 to pay one final visit to the dying Teddy Ballgame.

Through the pages, Halberstam and the ballplayers take another kind of trip — back to the days when the Red Sox were supposed to beat the Yankees every year and didn’t, usually because the team’s pitching didn’t match its fearsome hitting. We share some marvelous anecdotes, but both trips are marred by the knowledge of how the journey and book will end.

At 83, Williams was confined to a wheelchair and in terrible spirits, the result of two strokes in the 1990s. When DiMaggio and Pesky arrived, the latter felt he might have a heart attack at the sight of the great slugger shrunken to 130 pounds. But, Halberstam tells us, DiMaggio ran across the room shouting, “Teddy, It’s Dommy! And John is here, too.” Then Williams’ head came off his chest, he grinned and the three began to talk as if it were still 1950.

This is painful to read, particularly in the light of what happened to Williams’ remains after his death in July 2002. I, for one, certainly would rather recall Ted as he was in the days when he was the greatest hitter in baseball — possibly in baseball history.

“Baseball’s Greatest Season 1924” by Reed Browning ($26.95, University of Massachusetts Press, 205 pages, illus.) — The author, a professor of history at Kenyon College, suggests no season in the 79 since has matched the one that saw the Washington Senators win their only World Series, with pitching immortal Walter Johnson gaining his first Series victory in Game 7 against John McGraw’s New York Giants.

Browning does a competent job of rewriting the clips, and younger fans might be fascinated by the fact that Washington had a team to start with. But you have to be a real student of the game and its history to care about a pennant race that took place nearly 80 years ago.

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