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IN THE COUNTRY OF PROSEBALL
2003-11-05 19:31
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

Donald Hall is a poet as well as a baseball fan. He co-wrote Doc Ellis' autiobiography, "The Country of Baseball," and also appeared in Ken Burns' "Baseball" documentary. If you are looking to fill your off-season reading list, Hall has a book of sports essays called, "Fathers Playing Catch With Sons." The collection as a whole is well worth reading, but there is one article that I especially like: "Proseball: Sports, Stories, and Style," (1982) a criticial examination of baseball writing and literature. (The article is dated, but Hall's observations are still interesting.)

Hall's analysis is sharp without being vicious. He calls out newspaper hacks (Chass), as well as pompous eggheads (Updike). However, he fawns over Roger Angell, and admires Peter Gammons and Tom Boswell (as well as Roger Kahn). I've never been a huge fan of Kahn's work, but Angell, Gammons and Boswell are three of my favorite baseball writers. Hall's description of Angell's talent is spot on:


Angell's prose is graceful and pleasant, with never a misstep, never cliche or corn or overstatement or pomposity. What a pleasure it is to read him, like the pleasure of watching effortless fielding around second base: Angell can pick it. And his overall essay construction, as well as the dance of syntax and the proportion of analogies, makes for our pleasure. He paces his paragraphs with a perfection of tact--up and down, slow and fast, back and forth--leading readers lightly, giving them just enough of each subject to leave them wanting more. I watch his essayistic trickery with admiration and despair, much as a beer league softball pitcher might observe Luis Tiant.

As for Gammons, Hall opines:


Peter Gammons is strictly a newspaper writer; he left the Globe for a year at Sports Illustrated and wasted his talent. He writes a lively, tight, observant game story, and he excels at the background column. His prose is witty, authoritative, and factual, strong with moral judgement, like an eighteenth-century historian's.

Next, Hall dubs Boswell, "the other great newspaper baseball writer of our day:"


Unlike Gammons, Boswell is inconsistent, and unlike Gammons, he is not limited to newsprint...Boswell is pure scholar of the sport as well as a naturally gifted prose writer. He is quick to write a game story on a word processor, and when he slows down to write for a monthly magazine, his pace remains lively.

But here is the kicker:


Writers are as different as athletes, who perpetually divide themselves into those who feel natural in what they do, born to their skills, and those who pride themselves on the difficulty with which they learned those skills. The first type climbed from the crib with the eye's ability to discriminate the spin of a slider. The second, instead, listened to an American Legion coach explain the virtues of the batting stance; at the hundred-thousandth repetition, the lesson was learned...Thus, there are writers who boast about the number of their revisions, and others who brag about their facility. No doubt we are never quite what we think we are or what we pretend to be; no doubt the difference represents character more than history; yet character differences are as appreciable as history. Roger Angell writes as if he practiced, Thomas Boswell as if he didn't, Peter Gammons as if he didn't need to.

I am in no way trying to compare myself with any of these great writers, but if I had to critique myself, I'd say I write as if I didn't practice (and boy does it show), but I strive to be more like Angell, who writes as if he did practice. (Actually, that's not entirely true: writing a blog every day has to count for some kind of practice.) I don't think I'm talented enough to fantasize about being a member of the third category. All I know is that writing is very difficult, and that these three writers--along with Hall--allow the reader to enjoy the fruits of their labor with a kind of pleasure that can seduce you into believing that this stuff is actually easy to do.

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