Saturday, December 17, 2011

Game Six: Cincinnati, Boston, and the 1975 World Series: The Triumph of America's Pastime, by Mark Frost

This book was definitely written for people who already know all the figures involved. There was a lot of: "And that little boy's name was... George Anderson!" to which I have no reaction other than, "Good for him." But I soldiered on despite my ignorance, and did learn some things, not leastly what the man Frost blandly refers to as "Bucky 'Fucking' Dent" actually did.

The setup: Boston and Cincinnati are in Game Six of the World Series, with Boston down three games to two. After a two-day rain delay, Game Six is on in Fenway Park.

Frost has a habit of alternating paragraphs describing the action on the field with paragraphs about one of the players, or the history of the teams, or the situation in America and Boston in 1975. This works when his background information is substantial enough to take a few pages. It doesn't work when all he has is an anecdote about a player and he splits it into two disjointed paragraphs rather then a single cohesive one. But I got used to the rhythm - it is sort of like the commentary sportscasters provide in the moments between action, and that may be completely intentional on Frost's part.

If the game hadn't been played at Fenway, I would probably have been completely unable to follow the action. Frost does his best to describe it, but describing sporting events is a very difficult thing to do - why good radio sportscasters are so very, very good - and sometimes I couldn't quite picture what was going on. The alternating paragraphs mentioned above didn't always help, either.

But then Frost can write this:

Rico Petrocelli, headed cautiously toward second, wasn't sure until he nearly got to the base, and by then, every other living soul in Fenway had leapt to their feet in astonishment and joy, because Bernie Carbo had just deposited Eastwick's fat fastball over the wall ten rows into the seats of deepest right center for a three-run pinch-hit homer with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning and tied the god damned game.

People claimed you could hear it a mile away: The loudest explosion of sound even Tom Yawkey had ever heard in his ballpark erupted from Fenway.

I can feel that. The mad rhythm that starts with "Bernie Carbo had just..." and doesn't grant a single comma for the rest of the sentence... I'm watching that game.

Frost believes - and, after reading the book, I agree - that this was the play of the game, and so doesn't write Carlton Fisk's game-winning home run nearly as passionately. Frost seems irritated that Fisk was dubbed the hero of the game, and Carbo completely overlooked, but his narrative choice still made the ending of the game a letdown. And then, of course, the Red Sox self-destructed in Game Seven, because that's what they do. Game Seven needed to be either written more interestingly or addressed much more briefly - a sort of highlights reel instead of a play-by-play. I found that the most boring chapter.

I also didn't understand what the "triumph" of the title was. Yes, Game Six was watched by more television viewers than ever before and ushered in the era of night games, and made a lot of money for the television networks, but the final (long) chapter is all about how both teams collapsed in the following years, salaries started getting astronomical, fans didn't care about the players anymore, and then steroids took over. It didn't seem at all triumphal to me.

I'm not sorry I read this book, but I don't feel that it was written for me. It was written for hard-core Boston or Cincinnati fans old enough to have been watching games in 1975. Occasionally a bit of a slog for someone else. And the playing down of Tom Yawkey's (and Boston's) racism to the extent that Frost did really made me uncomfortable. 

No, wait, it's not downplaying, and I have to get this off my chest. It's pure ass-kissing of Tom Yawkey the entire book, and it's awful. There's one throw-away line about how Yawkey "unaccountably held the color line for ten years after Robinson". What? It's not "unaccountable"! It's directly accountable to racism! I don't remember a time after arriving in New England that I didn't know Tom Yawkey was a horrible racist, and for much of his career a pretty shabby owner as well, and yet Frost wants to show him as a near-saint and claim that the biggest tragedy of the entire Red Sox legacy is that Yawkey never saw them win a World Series. Well, maybe if he'd integrated the team before 1959 (and he fought that tooth and nail but was finally overruled), he'd have had a chance, Frost! Sheesh.

Frost tries to address the busing going on in Boston at the time, and the struggles of the players of color, but he is obviously deeply uncomfortable with those topics and edges away from them as fast as he can. And you can't write about the history of Boston baseball if you're not willing to write about racism. You really can't. 

Okay, I feel better now.

Next up: From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjon. My Early Reviewers book, and clearly 270 pages of pure madness. I liked Iceland's Bell but I don't know if I'm ready for this. 

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