Warm Thoughts for a Cold Winter: The Fireside Book of Baseball

I received The Fireside Book of Baseball as a Christmas present, probably not too long after it was published in 1987. There were three earlier editions of the book, published in 1956, 1958, and 1968, respectively. The cover photo has a wide-angle picture taken at Shea Stadium during the 1986 World Series (if I had to guess, I’d say either game 1 or 7, since it looks like Ron Darling is on the mound). It’s an anthology of baseball writing, arranged alphabetically by author, and including all types of pieces. There’s reportage, profiles, biography, fiction, poetry, parodies, and even some cartoons and photos to accompany the action.

I dig this book out at least once every year, because it’s one of the best baseball books I’ve ever read, and probably ever will read. The Fireside Book‘s basic philosophy is, Here’s a buncha stuff about baseball. Enjoy! It’s not meant to be read in order, or all in one sitting. Just flip to a page, and chances are you will find something great.

Like “The Age of the Muffin”, a history of post-Civil War baseball by Robert Smith (not the cure frontman). Or Bill James, in a very un-Jamesian piece, probing the story of a mysterious gambling ring in an obscure Louisiana semi-pro league in the 1940s. Or an excerpt from the autobiography of Japanese home run king Sadaharu Oh. Or a poem comprised of the rules for a women’s softball league. Or an all-too-brief glimpse of Moe Berg in old age, the former major league catcher who doubled as a spy for OSS in the years before World War II.

It has contemporary accounts of famous games, with a heavy emphasis on the 1980s. Like Moss Klein’s account of game 5 of the 1986 ALCS, and The Curse of Gene Mauch. Or Murray Chass’s first-hand account of The Pine Tar Game (proving that he wasn’t always a crabby, bitter douche). Or the magnificent Roger Angell’s take on game 6 of the 1975 World Series.

It has fiction, like a chunk from Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, one of the greatest and least-appreciated baseball novels ever. And there’s excerpts from works of fiction that aren’t strictly about baseball, like William Kennedy’s Ironweed and Phillip Roth’s The Great American Novel.

There’s even transcriptions of legal documents, like the offical DH rule, and the motion to dismiss that struck down Charlie Finley’s sale of Rollie Fingers and Joe Rudi to the Red Sox in 1976 (and which contains a convoluted and fascinating dissertation on MLB’s antitrust exemption). And a poem consisting of the names and nicknames of 269 players both famous and obscure.

Some pieces have the traditional starry-eyed, childlike wonder associated with baseball. But there’s also plenty of failure in this book, too. And regret. And skullduggery. I like a book that can admit there are plenty of shitty, weird, and wrong things that happen in the game, without seeming cynical in the process.

Unfortunately, this book is out of print now. A fifth edition was published in 2000, but I have never seen it, so I can not vouch for its contents (plus, it too is out of print, so the point is moot). But if you ever spot the 1987 edition of The Fireside Book of Baseball in a used book shoppe or thrift store, snatch it up immediately. No price is too high.