One of the many (MANY) things that makes baseball great is its relationship to and with American history. More than any other sport, baseball embraces and celebrates its own history and its place in the larger picture of U.S. history and culture.
One of many (MANY) results of this is the vast number of publications devoted to that history and that place. No other sport has generated the wealth of quality literature, both fiction and nonfiction, that baseball has. Regardless of popularity polls, television ratings, or countless Op-Eds, baseball has a place in U.S. life that no other sport can come close to.
While it’s relatively easy to be a basketball fan and have no idea who Bob Cousy or Wilt Chamberlain were, it’s virtually impossible to be a baseball fan and not know about Babe Ruth or Jackie Robinson. Football fans can remain blissfully ignorant of Jim Brown and Sammy Baugh, but baseball fans can’t really be so without at least a nodding familiarity with Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson. It’s part of the fabric of the game, even when part of that fabric was polyester.
And so over the years, a great many histories of baseball have been written. Some of these are magisterial; some are mediocre. Some focus on a year or an era; some cover the whole. Some are breezy, reader-friendly narratives; some are ponderous, academic doorstops.
But to my knowledge, only one is in readily-accessible comic book form*. Published earlier this year, The Comic Book Story of Baseball: The Heroes, Hustlers, and History-Making Swings (and Misses) of America’s National Pastime by Alex Irvine (with art by Tomm Coker and C.P. Smith) is here to help new generations learn their history and older generations remember and revisit it.
The book primarily uses that sort of “illustrated photo” style in its drawings, in the process reproducing a number of famous and not-so-famous photographs as well as applying the style to its other panels as well. While comic book fans might lament not taking a bolder approach, it works here, giving the book a semi-documentary feel that suits its purpose as a general, introductory history.
And ultimately, of course, that’s what this is: A sort of baseball 101 survey class that covers the highlights, while providing a running series of sidebars that capture those heroes, hustlers, and history-making events and people that form the tapestry of baseball. In fact, the sidebars and digressions form the bulk of the book, which covers baseball from its “pre-history” roots in stoolball and other precursors to the 19th Century game up to the more-or-less present. It takes lots of time and ink to pay proper homage to important non-MLB developments like the Negro Leagues (several of whose greats are spotlighted), the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, the House of David teams, Japanese and Latin American baseball, and, of course, Disco Demolition Night.
The book takes the time to examine, and debunk, a number of baseball myths (Abner Doubleday, Ruth’s called shot, Mantle’s 560-foot HR, etc.) and to celebrate a few of the game’s wonderful eccentrics, like Rube Waddell, Casey Stengel, Moe Berg, Satchel Page (both eccentric and great) and, of course, Bill Veeck. It recognizes that oddballs and oddities are as important to the game as the Gehrigs and the Foxxes.
The book is written for a general audience, of course, and the prose is generally straightforward and lean, though wit and some gentle sarcasm poke their heads up now and again. And while the tone is celebratory, it’s in no way pompous or somber. It’s clearly intended to be a fun read, and it is. While I have a few minor quibbles here and there with what might have been included, there are no glaring omissions, and the very occasional factual gaffes are ultimately minor.
A number of Chicago White Sox-related topics are covered: the Black Sox scandal, of course, and the above-mentioned Veeck and misguided promotions, but also the team’s role in the early days of both the American and National Leagues (remember, that north side team started out as the White Stockings), and the 2005 WS victory (take that, ESPN and CBS). Frank Thomas and Jim Thome get little shout-outs. And so on. These is, sadly, a heavy dose of New York, but then, sadly, baseball history itself has a New York bias.
The author does us all a great favor by providing an index, and there is even a glossary for those younger or newer-to-baseball readers where things like the infield fly rule, pepper, and sabermetrics (Hawk, take note) are explained. (Note: while this is perfectly suitable, and recommended, for younger readers, it is not specifically directed at them and very young readers may have trouble with some of the language – not salty, but it’s written for a literate audience of say, 12 and up.)
Ultimately, The Comic Book Story of Baseball isn’t going to tell most knowledgeable fans (which I’ll flatter us all by assuming that if you’re on SSS, then you probably are one) a lot they don’t already know. It will, though, remind you of a number of things you’ve forgotten or haven’t thought about in a long time. It will entertain you. It will be time well-spent. For younger or newer fans, it will provide an engaging overview and help make sense of a lot of the references and stories you’ll hear referred to as you fall ever more deeply in love with this great game that tends to grab you and not let go.
*This is true only in terms of a general overview. There have been a number of graphic volumes devoted to smaller-scale baseball subjects, including a great graphic biography of Roberto Clemente that I’ll be highlighting at some point here soon.