Thursday, July 30, 2009

Zane Grey's Baseball Tales

That's Zane Grey up there. We remember him best today as a prolific and still popular writer of Westerns, with his best-known and arguably finest novel being Riders of the Purple Sage. (1912)

But Grey also knew baseball. He actually played minor league ball for a short time around the turn of the century and his brother briefly played for the Pittsburg Pirates in 1902.

And, by golly, he wrote about baseball as well. I recently stumbled across the book The Redheaded Outfield & Other Baseball Stories (1920), a collection of delightful and sometimes extremely exciting tales about minor league and small town baseball--set in an era when baseball really was America's Sport and nearly every town had its own team. (I'm sure many Zane Grey fans know about this book already--but it was a fun new discovery for me.)

I've always been a fairly minor Zane Grey fan--I enjoy his work but always thought of Max Brand as the best Western writer of the early 20th Century. But I couldn't put The Redheaded Outfield down. Everything about it--from the conversational prose to the likeable characters to the understanding of baseball's hold on the culture of the day--grabbed my attention and held it. It's one of the most purely enjoyable books I've read in a long time.

About half the stories are narrated by a minor league manager who is mentoring a new and talented pitcher-- a job that at one point includes straightening out the pitcher's love life so that he can get back to concentrating on his pitching. Another yarn is about the 11-year-old crippled "manager" of a sandlot squad who discovers he has a talent for organizing a winning team. Still another is about a star college pitcher who is paid to be a "ringer" for a small-town team--until the pretty sister of an opposing player convinces him to change sides. Each story includes a play-by-play account of at least one tense game that really draws you into the story.

Zane Grey definitely knew his baseball. And he was pretty darn good at writing about it as well. Dig up a copy of this--there's a fair chance your local library will have it--and give it a read.

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