A year ago it was my great pleasure to comment in this space on a marvelous little book, Don't Let Baseball Die, the work of an unknown writer named Art Hill and an unknown publisher called Avery Color Studios. I described the volume as "a genuine original, a book that will give any reader who cares about baseball and good prose a full measure of surprise and delight."
Well, it is now my even greater pleasure to report that Art Hill has found his way to a major publisher and come forth with a second book: I Don't Care If I Never Come Back (Simon & Schuster, $11.95). Like its predecessor, it is cast in the form of a baseball fan's diary; in fact, some of the material in the first book is recycled in the second—which is entirely acceptable considering the limited distribution of Don't Let Baseball Die. But whether it's seeing print for the first time or the second, everything in I Don't Care If I Never Come Back is terrific.
For those not fortunate enough to have made Hill's acquaintance, he is a 60-year-old writer who has worked at a number of jobs, defeated alcoholism (a subject he writes about with much candor) and followed the Detroit Tigers with devotion and, often, despair. On the evidence of his writings, he is a funny man who has learned to take defeat in good humor, which is helpful if you happen to be a Tiger fan. He is also observant, perceptive and irreverent. And he knows his baseball.
"I write from the viewpoint of the average fan, although, like any average fan, I think I know more about the game than the average fan," Hill says. He does. He reads The Sports Encyclopedia: Baseball and The Baseball Encyclopedia the way a CPA reads the tax laws. He has a retentive memory, especially for offbeat anecdotes and revealing incidents. He knows excellence when he sees it and admires it unabashedly:
June 15, 1980
"...should we not be grateful for the existence of a large field of human activity in which almost all the participants do excel—especially since we can watch them while they do it? I am talking about big league baseball, of course. I think few of us really recognize the degree of excellence it takes to play the game in the major leagues. But almost every fan of long standing can remember an outstanding high school or college player he has seen, one whose skills so far exceeded those of the players around him that he seemed to be playing a different game, but who never came close to making it in the bigs. Once you have watched such a player fail, you begin to get some idea of just how good you have to be to play in the majors at all, let alone become a star."
No matter how vehemently Hill gripes and grouses over the shortcomings that pass before his eyes—he goes on for several pages, for example, about Ron LeFlore's refusal to capitalize on his considerable speed by learning to bunt—he never loses sight of the essential point: when he is watching big league ball, he is watching the best. Yet he doesn't get sappy about it. Unlike all those poets and academics who have discovered baseball in recent years, he refuses to make a religion out of the game:
"The deeper meaning of baseball, like that of life, is obscure. It may be that baseball is, under close analysis, pointless. What seems apparent to me is that close analysis is pointless. The game is there. It is the best game there is. That's all I need to know."
It's enough. Hill finds in the game a wealth of material for rumination and digression—the latter being, as he says, "good for the soul." A comment on TV beer advertising leads him to a comment on abuses of the language, which leads him to a comment on truth in advertising, which leads him to a comment on the relative ages of humans and animals. In Hill's hands, it makes sense.
Actually, Hill digresses less in his second book than he did in his first. For the most part, his eye is directly on the diamond. His vision is keen, and the results can be devastating. Of George Steinbrenner he writes, "On television, he often comes across as a rather pleasant, easygoing man who's just trying to get fair value for his money. In reality, he is overbearing and, off his record, odious."
By and large, however, Hill prefers praising to damning. Above all, he praises those players who have stretched their talents to the utmost, giving their all to the game. His highest accolades are reserved for Al Kaline:
"He gave not 110%, which is a meaningless hype phrase, but as close to 100% of himself as any player the game has known. He was a gifted ballplayer but, in my opinion, not quite gifted enough to become one of the game's alltime greats on talent alone. That he did become one is a tribute to such tired old virtues as determination and hard work. He was born a star; he made himself a superstar."
Well, I could go on and on in praise of Art Hill, but a ball game begins in an hour—by happy coincidence, a game between my Orioles and Hill's Tigers. I will be watching on television, and I hope Hill will be in the stands at Tiger Stadium. We'll be rooting against each other, but cheering together for the great old game. And I hope Hill will be taking notes for a third book; one of the many virtues of I Don't Care If I Never Come Back is that it leaves the reader hungry for more.