- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 22, 2009

THE DICKSON BASEBALL DICTIONARY: THE REVISED, EXPANDED, AND NOW-DEFINITIVE WORK ON THE LANGUAGE OF BASEBALL
Edited by Paul Dickson
Norton, $49.95, 974 pages

EVOLUTION: THE FIRST FOUR BILLION YEARS
Edited by Michael Ruse and Joseph Travis
Harvard University Press, $39.95, 979 pages
REVIEWED BY JAMES SRODES

Why, in this time of serious economic peril would anyone, even someone with a burning interest in the topics shell out the better part of $40 and $50 respectively for two-pounds-worth of volumes on evolution or baseball, let alone buy both?

The quick answer is because they are both extraordinary books of value beyond the cost. If you or someone you love has an interest in either topic, then these will be welcome additions to any collection. More, even if you know nothing and care less I would still recommend buying either book or both because they are both so readable, so accessible, and such a pleasure to dip into, to research into, or to just sit down and read for the narrative flow. Besides, 50 bucks won’t get you very far in a night on the town these days.

Not surprisingly, Paul Dickson’s “Baseball Dictionary” has the more immediate attraction and more laughs. Before I go further, in the interests of full disclosure, let me acknowledge that I know Mr. Dickson personally. One cannot be a writer in Washington and not know this local Samuel Johnson of our craft. He is the author of more than 50 books in a staggering range from authoritative accounts of Sputnik, the 1932 Bonus Army March, the history of ice cream and, not surprisingly a whole shelf about the language of slang from the battlefield to the diamond. My claim to objectivity is that I am one of the few writers in our community who has not been involved in a writing project with him.

This is the third edition of a quest Dickson began in 1989 when his first effort produced 5,000 entries of baseball lore, rules, and jargon. Thirty years later this new edition boasts twice as many entries from A, for the Class A baseball minor leagues, to zurdo, which is “Spanish for ‘lefty’ and ‘southpaw.’” In all, there are more than 18,000 definitions of what clearly is the most vibrant and creative portion of the popular English language. But these aren’t dry explications; there are plenty of anecdotes, and some very funny yarns.

Mr. Dickson explains what he’s up to this way, “From the outset, the idea was that it (the book) had to be useful to a nine-year-old looking for a clear definition of the infield fly rule, but it also had to be a book that would appeal to two of the toughest audiences for the printed word: the baseball fanatic and the lover of language. First and foremost, this is a dictionary meant for these three users. But it is also a book for browsing, and for that reason there is flexibility in the presentation of entries. If, for example, a good story begs to be told as a digression, it gets told.”

Even the digressions can be interesting. Mr. Dickson devotes considerable space to the origins of some of my favorite baseball jargon, including “rhubarb” which has two definitions, the venerable “seventh-inning stretch,” and the Japanese word for baseball (“besuboru”). Then there is “eephus,” which I had gone my entire life in the belief that it was used exclusively by my high school coach to describe my pitching style: “A slowly thrown, high-arcing pitch likely to reach an apex of 25 feet above the ground between the mound and the plate.”

And, yes, the book’s definition of the infield fly rule would make it clear even to a 9-year-old, as it did for the first time for me.

While there are no laughs at all, “Evolution, The First Four Billion Years” is as equally inviting and particularly timely in this bicentennial year of the birth of Charles Darwin and the ever- bubbling controversy with advocates of a creationist explanation for the mysteries of biology.

Charles Robert Darwin’s 1859 work, “On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection” is one of those seminal documents like the Bible and the Declaration of Independence about which nearly everyone has opinions without the inconvenience of actually having read it. This is probably just as well in Darwin’s case for “Origin” is pretty heavy going and that makes this book all the more important.

The editors of “Evolution” have assembled a stable of recognized experts in areas such as paleontology, molecular evolution, the genome, speciation and human evolution to not only make Darwin’s findings and theories more accessible but also to put them into the context of what they meant in 19th-century terms and how that meaning has changed as knowledge has become more encompassing.

The irony in the uproar over Darwin and his theories is that Charles Darwin did in fact believe in God and saw no conflict between that belief and his observations about species development. This is an inconvenient truth that vexes the creationists. At the end of “Origin”, he stated that: “it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes. …When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Silurian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled.”

He added a last sentence in his second edition that concluded, “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

The 16 explaining essays, followed by the second encyclopedic section offer the reader an easily and enjoyable access to what the fuss is all about and why it is important to get one’s own opinions based on reality. Life, after all, is too important.

James Srodes was a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America during the two years he helped keep box scores of Washington Senators games for United Press International in the late 1960s.

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