Friday, March 15, 2013

Review: Keepers of the Game (2013)

By Dennis D'Agostino

To be personal for a moment, back when I was in high school, I enjoyed attending sporting events. Yet, while I enjoyed sitting in the stands with family and friends, if given I choice I probably often would have gone to sit somewhere else. I would have asked to listen in on the really smart, witty people - the press box.

Here I am, 40 years later, and I still often feel that way.

Apparently Dennis D'Agostino has the same feeling I did. He's carried on conversations with some of the top baseball writers in the country over the years, and collected them here. "Keepers of the Game" is, ahem, a keeper.

The idea, as the author freely admits, is not original. Jerome Holtzman, himself a legendary baseball writer from Chicago, did a book of such interviews with the people from his business that he considered legends some time ago. Most old-school baseball writers have a copy or at least read it, although it has to be ancient history to the new kids on the beat.

D'Agostino started with a list of Spink Award winners, which is the writing equivalent of going into the Hall of Fame. In fact, winners are honored at Cooperstown with the other inductees. He talked to as many of the living recipients as possible. Then he added some other top writers who probably are just as worthy as the winners in most cases, and he had 23 chapters for a book.

The passage of time is very striking when reviewing the observations of these fine reporters. Some of the bylines will be familiar to readers of the late, great print edition of the Sporting News, which used to take weekly reports from reporters in the major-league cities. It was always exciting to read those "out-of-town" stories; it was like being in that city and reading the best in the business during the visit. Alas, the Sporting News essentially couldn't figure out a way to keep going in the Internet age, and has evolved into just a website. So in a sense, we're missing that sort of information source ... unless you want to contribute to all sorts of newspapers' paywalls in an effort to get the stories. A pity.

Then there's the matter of how the business changed in such a short time. Some of the true veterans here would write up stories on typewriters and then give to a Western Union representative to send back to the home city via dots and dashes. From there it would be carried to the newspaper's home office. Took hours in some cases. That slowly evolved into the telecopier, which turned into the Tandy portable computer, and into the laptop.

And all of the men listed say how the business has become much more demanding today, a 24-hour operation thanks to blogs, Twitter, etc. Add that to grueling travel, as it's rare for reporters to fly on team planes any more, and it's exhausting to cover a baseball team these days. Some would do it all over again, others wouldn't put so anxious to do it for decades no matter how much they loved the job and the game.

It's amazing how many of the "breaking into the business" stories are similar. They seemed to all be writers in high school, did practically everything to get into the business, stumbled into the baseball beat for one reason or another, and stayed there.

But from there, the stories do take different paths. It's Peter Gammons telling how he called 253 hotels in Virginia searching for the Red Sox general manager, who when found gave him the scoop that Boston wasn't going to sign free agent Jim Hunter. It's Stan Hochman of Philadelphia, taking a break from baseball to interview the cast of "The Night of the Iguana." He taught Richard Burton about baseball. There's the time Bob Hertzel heard Sparky Anderson describe the Reds as "they" in a phone call, and deduced that the longtime skipper in Cincinnati had just lost his job.

The young people out there might not be able to relate to this type of material, and think some of the biographies reads the same way after a while. So, mostly for being targeted at a rather limited niche, this gets "only" four stars. Meanwhile, for those who are interested to pick this up and even glance at it, they're are in for the easiest of enjoyable reads.

As my new editor said to a 40-year-veteran of our newspaper recently, "I could listen to you 'old-timers' all day." Here, you can do just that.

Four stars

Learn more about this book.

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