Baseball's Memorable 'Seasons'

Bill Gilbert, a former Washington, D.C. newspaperman and baseball executive, should be getting the hang of writing books by now.

The Seasons, an account of 10 memorable baseball campaigns and how they reflected society in America, is his 20th. Although much of this material has been done before, in book form or the daily press, Gilbert manages to relate it in a manner consistent with the high standards he sets for himself.

Gilbert’s writing is notable for its smooth flow, thoroughness and versatility. Eleven of his books deal with sports, but he also has told the stories of such dissimilar public figures as Bert Lance, the scandalized budget director of the Carter administration; the big-band era’s singing Andrews sisters; and TV talkmeister Larry King.

By way of explaining his wide range of topics, Gilbert says simply, “I enjoy dealing with new and different subjects.” Yet he’d be the first to tell you that baseball is his primary interest.

The sport seems to have a stronger hold than most others on the emotions of older Americans, and Gilbert is no exception. Even a mercifully brief tenure as publicity director of the woebegone expansion Washington Senators of the early 1960s didn’t damage his love of the game.

Certainly The Seasons is the most ambitious of his baseball efforts. In tying each season to important events outside the game, Gilbert provides a double dose of nostalgia for fans who grew up in the days before millionaire players, designated hitters and enough home runs to make Babe Ruth’s jaw drop.

Fortunately, Gilbert doesn’t play the role of curmudgeon. Instead, he tells each of his stories in a warm, satisfying manner that can make even those who weren’t there wish they had been.

This is what distinguishes Gilbert’s book from the dozens of others about baseball published each year. The danger in writing any kind of history, of course, is that the accounts can seem as dry and dusty as old newspaper clips. This never happens with Gilbert. He educates and entertains his readers at the same time, a neat and difficult trick for most authors to pull off.

Gilbert’s Seasons range from 1945, when the original Senators nearly celebrated the end of World War II by winning an unlikely pennant with a collection of castoffs, 4Fs and four-count ‘em, four-knuckleball pitchers, to 2001, when stars like Cal Ripken, Mark McGwire and Tony Gwynn ended their careers; Barry Bonds defied probability by hitting 73 home runs; and baseball helped the nation regain some semblance of normalcy after the horrors of September 11.

“Americans wrote history in those years, and so did baseball players as the nation and her national pastime became partners in history,” Gilbert says in his introduction.

If you don’t believe that what happens between the white lines often serves as a microcosm of American society, well, that’s your problem. Too often baseball has been portrayed and eulogized as a metaphor for life-are you listening, George Will?-but Gilbert finds and details some striking parallels.

My favorite section of the book tells of the unbelievable National League pennant race of 1951, which ended just as unbelievably when Bobby Thomson hit a home run that carried both himself and pitcher Ralph Branca to horsehide immortality. No matter how many times you’ve read this stuff, hairs will prickle on the back of your neck as New York Giant Thomson steps into the batter’s box to face Brooklyn Dodger Branca at the Polo Grounds in Harlem on the overcast afternoon of Oct. 3, 1951.

How long ago was that, really? Gilbert reminds us that as Thomson’s line drive headed toward the left-field stands at 3:44 p.m., it was still necessary for Americans to dial numbers on a telephone, swelter all summer in non-air conditioned homes and offices and clack away on manual typewriters. And if you had two television sets, you were considered rich.

Gilbert deals with his other Seasons almost as evocatively. Topics include the Mantle-Maris home run race of 1961, the “Amazin’ Mets” of 1969 and Ripken’s consecutive-games streak that captured a nation’s attention in 1995 and, at least theoretically, “saved” baseball after the ruinous players’ strike that had erased the latter part of the previous season and the World Series.

What Gilbert’s book does, above all else, is place baseball in a larger context that shows us how the game’s highs and lows can seem so important and yet not really matter at the same time. For that alone, he deserves immense credit and a large audience.