Sunday, March 16, 2014

Review: A Nice Little Place on the North Side (2014)

By George Will

Before getting to the subject of George Will, baseball writer, let's discuss George Will, writer.

One of the problems with most political writers these days is that they aren't good enough to convince others of their position unless those people already are on their side. In other words, a liberal who writes about the Affordable Care Act's benefits will received nods of approval from like-minded readers, and angry rejections by those who don't fit into that standard.

George Will is different.

Will is so darn smart, such a thorough researcher and so good a writer that he can shake a reader's preconceptions. In other words, after reading him, you often have to at least consider the possibility that he is right and you are wrong. I'm not sure how many minds he actually changes in this polarized world these days, but he gets high marks for trying.

But political considerations always cloud opinions in this day and age of gridlock. Luckily, Will has the habit of writing about baseball every now and again. He may have a bit of attitude when it comes to the game, believing famously that no other sport can come close to it. Will's most quoted line may be what he once said about football - that it combined the two worst elements of American society, violence and committee meetings. But for those who love baseball, he's a strong advocate for truth, justice and the American (plus Toronto, as in Blue Jays) way.

Will wrote the book, "Men at Work," many years ago. It was a full-length look at the activities of four major leaguers, including Cal Ripken and Tony La Russa. The publication was excellent. I believe Will once said that it was the only book he wrote in which he saw others read on an airplane.

Now Will is back with another baseball book, "A Nice Little Place on the North Side." It's something of a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Chicago Cubs' arrival in Wrigley Field, one of baseball's shrines.

Will grew up as a Cubs fan, which makes him "long suffering" - not that there is any other kind of Cubs fan. He gets the chance to give a series of relatively short essays about the Cubs and the park over the years, generally moving in something resembling chronological order. He gives the impression that he's more or less thrilled to comment on all of the Cubs' brief ups and emphatic downs over the years. To get paid for it ... well, life can be good.

Here, then, is Will on a variety of subjects that are Cub-related. The team was actually pretty good in its early years, a National League powerhouse more than 100 years ago. They even got into a World Series or two at some point, but those disappeared right around the time that Will started paying attention as a child. Maybe he's taking that a little personally.

There have been plenty of distractions along the way. Phil Wrigley had some odd ideas as owner. The strangest must have been in the early Sixties, when he opted not to have a manager but rather a collection of coaches. It didn't help. Wrigley also sold the idea that the ballpark was a nice place to spend an afternoon (remember, no lights until the 1980s), rather than to see a good team. This became self-perpetuating. The fans in Chicago like the park so much that they are willing to accept bad baseball, but stay home when beer prices go up. It's an odd economic dynamic.

Will talks about characters dating back to Hack Wilson and Leo Durocher, and events like Babe Ruth's called shot and a 23-22 game (10 innings, I believe). You probably know what's also on the list - 2003, in which the Cubs let a series-clinching game get away in horrific fashion. Will, by the way, agrees with a documentary's conclusion that Chicago's even worse treatment of Steve Bartman tells us more about Chicago than it does about Bartman.The finish in 1984 had its own scapegoat, Leon Durham, as the Cubs let a playoff series to the Padres get away.

A couple of remarks about the text - you are likely to see some words that I'm not sure have ever been published in a story with Will's byline before. They are from quotes, but it's still a little surprising. Sounds like Ruth knew how to throw around some bad words in colorful combinations.  In another section, Will prints manager Lee Elia's famous obscene outburst about the Cub fans in the early 1980s virtually verbatim, but with the profanity partially blocked out (as in d---, or worse).

It's also rather short, a couple of hundred pages or so plus notes, so it takes little time to go through. Don't expect this to last you for a week. Still, the writing is good enough to make it a pleasure, even if at $25 it's not going to be rated a "best buy" by Consumer Reports.

Will has lived in the Washington area for many years, and he certainly can go to an Orioles or Nationals game when convenient. However, it's still true that your favorite team as a child usually stays with you for a lifetime. "A Nice Little Place on the North Side" is a charming love letter to a team that has frequently broken his heart, yet left him coming back for more.

Five stars

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1 comment:

  1. Excellent review. I found out about this book recently whilst browsing the new releases page on Amazon and thought I should try and get a copy. It's good to hear it should be worth it. Thanks