- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 2, 2005

GUYS, DOLLS AND CURVEBALLS: DAMON RUNYON ON BASEBALL

By Jim Reisler

Carroll & Graf, $16.95,

416 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY LYN NOFZIGER

The ubiquitous “they” are often quoted as saying you can never get too much of a good thing. That apparently is also the belief of Jim Reisler who has provided us with some — thank goodness, not all — of the baseball writings of perhaps the most famous baseball writer of all time, Damon Runyon.

This generation of sports fans and others, if they know Mr. Runyon at all, it is as the writer of “Guys and Dolls” and sundry other stories of the characters who once frequented organized baseball — in those days purely a daytime game —and the hotspots, theaters and speakeasies of New York.

But Mr. Reisler, in a collection of 20 years-plus of Runyon’s writings, focuses entirely on his baseball stories and columns. Runyon is, or was, a different kind of baseball writer, using baseball as the peg on which to hang his unique style of writing, rather than utilizing his writing talent thoroughly to cover the game. Indeed, during the season, many of his stories bordered on the haphazard, leaving one to peruse the box score for game details. On the other hand, when covering World Series games. Runyon went to the other extreme and made a habit of writing batter-by-batter details.

Runyon’s casual, almost flippant style of writing is delightful when taken in small doses as was the case when he was writing his daily columns during the baseball season, butgathering a major bundle of his stories together in one massive lump, as Mr. Reisler has done, can border on the cloying. Advice: Take a week or so to read “Guys, Dolls and Curveballs;” you’ll enjoy it more.

No matter. From l911 to the early 1930s Runyon covered the major league baseball scene from spring training through the World Series for William Randolph Hearst’s New York American, becoming one of the most highly paid sports writers of his era and posthumously being elected to the writers’ wing of the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Mr. Reisler is a sports writer and baseball historian who has written extensively on Babe Ruth. His explanatory notes add much to the book, mainly, I think, because hardly a man is now alive who remembers the players and their exploits about which Runyon wrote so uniquely. Unfortunately, he — Mr. Reisler, not Runyon —makes one egregious error, which, if he were older or had come from San Francisco, he likely would not have made and which I will try now to rectify.

It has to do with Frank “Lefty” O’Doul, major league pitching flop, major league hitter de luxe, minor league manager of the old San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League and San Francisco saloon owner. Because Runyon mentions O’Doul in a column, Mr. Reisler takes it on himself to tell us: “Frank O’Doul’s big-league career was brief: 11 games and no record with the Yankees, before being traded to the Red Sox and pitching all of one year andcompiling a 1-1 record.”

But Mr. Reisler was wrong; that was merely O’Doul’s pitching career. A total bust, he went back to the minors, only to return to the majors a few years later as a hard-hitting outfielder, hitting a league-leading .398 one year and averaging .349 over a seven-year stretch between l928 and l934. Mr. Riesler should have known this. Damon Runyon would have.

Nobody writes baseball today like Runyon wrote it, probably because there are no publishers around today like William Randolph Hearst and probably, also, it would be hard to find a sports editor who would accept or be comfortable with his personalized style which is unlike any a sports fan is apt to find in today’s papers.

Sportswriters today are serious people giving us not only the whys and wherefores of the game, but also delving into the background and psyches of the star players in order to help us know what it is that makes our heroes tick.

Runyon would have nothing to do with that sort of approach or that kind of writing. It is hard to believe that he took the game seriously.

He unhesitatingly gave players nicknames, some of which stuck and some of which didn’t. Babe Ruth is known in baseball lore as “The Sultan of Swat”but Runyon referred tohim at least once as “the Battering Beezark from Baltimore and also “the Beezark of Ker-Blam.” Fans today would have to guess to whom it was he was referring. Another great, Ty Cobb, is familiarly known as “the Georgia Peach” but to Runyon he was “the Jewel of Georgia.” That one didn’t catch on, either.

He wrote of players in a familiar way, treating them as friends he could kid or twit. It is doubtful that any of today’s surly stars such as “Steroid Barry” Bonds could have been surly for very long around him. At random here are some Runyon descriptions: “Jesse Joseph Haines, the corn-fed man from Phillipsburg, Ohio;” “Old Grover Cleveland Alexander with his cap perched high above his ears shambled out of a fog … just in time to fan Poosh ‘Em Up Tony Lazzeri …;” “Ray Fisher, the sturdy Vermont school teacher … And so on.

Older fans will probably get more pleasure out of Mr. Reisler’s book than younger ones, mainly because so many of the names will be unfamiliar to readers born after World War II. Names of players such as Ruth, Cobb, Walter Johnson and Grover Cleveland Alexander are part of baseball lore, as are the names of such managers as Connie Mack and John McGraw. But how many will know the names of Ernie Orsatti or Joe Judge or Oscar Vitt, or Rabbit Maranville or even Rube Marquard? Or will know that long before Casey Stengel managed the New York Yankees he was the hero of the 1923 World Series?

Readers should remember that when Damon Runyon was writing about baseball there was no television and in his early writing days there was no radio. The future baseball announcer Ronald Reagan was born the same year Runyon began covering baseball for Hearst’s American.

During Runyon’s entire lifethere were only 16 major league teams, eight in the National League and eight in the American, none farther west than St. Louis or farther south than Washington. They traveled not by air but by train and they played in the daytime. There were no lighted fields. Organized baseball in those days was a white man’s game. Branch Rickey had yet to break the color line by signing Jackie Robinsonto play for the Brooklyn Dodgers. That came after World War II. And the influx of players from South America and the Caribbean began even later.

Neither was there any such animal as the American League’s designated hitter and it was many years after Ray Chapman was killed by a pitched ball thrown by Carl Mays that the wearing of batting helmets was made compulsory for everyone but Ted Williams who refused to wear one.

In other words both the game and the times were different when Runyon was having fun writing about major league baseball and the characters who peopled it. It is too bad that nobody with his lighthearted approach to the game is writing about it today.

As for real baseball fans, Mr. Reisler has done them a favor by giving them a taste of how and by whom the game was played in earlier days by a writer who knew enough to treat it like the game it was and not like the self-centered, money-grubbing professional sport it has become.

Lyn Nofziger, a Washington writer, was an adviser to President Ronald Reagan.

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