Since the days of Homer, there have been two essential truths about storytelling: Everybody has a story, and not everyone is a great teller. The current collections by Ira Berkow and Joe Garagiola are cases in point.
As a junior at Miami (Ohio) University, Berkow mailed Red Smith two of his columns from the college newspaper, asking the columnist to critique them. Smith wrote back, advising Berkow, "Just keep trying to do it your way, never imitating." Twenty-eight years later, as a columnist for Smith's old paper, The New York Times, Berkow is doing his mentor proud.
Berkow calls his first anthology of columns Pitchers Do Get Lonely (Atheneum, $17.95), to which he might well have added the subtitle, A Pleasant Collection, for these musings are rarely jarring, politically or otherwise. Berkow places a premium on lightly told tales with a memorable departing image. In the story of hardworking baseball scout Dick Teed, who as a player had one major league at bat, the closing line has Teed recalling, "I struck out, but I went down taking good cuts." On a visit with venerable boxing manager Cus D'Amato, Berkow concludes with a recollection of the time one of D'Amato's fighters, light heavyweight Josè Torres, was arrested a few days before he began training for a championship fight. Torres telephoned D'Amato from the police station and confessed that he had been in a street fight. " 'Josè,' said D'Amato, with concern in his voice, "Did you keep your chin down?' "
Aging athletes hold a special attraction for Berkow. Pitchers Do Get Lonely is full of such resilient types as Jimmy Connors, Pete Rose, Jake La Motta, Bronko Nagurski, Billy Martin and Dusty Rhodes, the 1954 World Series hero and later a mate on a tugboat. Of Martin, Berkow muses, "Compelling? Well, in the way that watching a traffic accident is compelling. You rubberneck despite yourself."
July 10, 1988
The quirky appeals to Berkow as well. We learn about the witty blind golfer Joe Lazarro; Bill Haber, a tracker of information on dead baseball players; minor league catcher Dave Bresnahan, who attempted to pick a base runner off third with a potato; and Bobby Del Vecchio, a rodeo cowboy who hangs his big black hat in the corrals of the Bronx.
Some readers of Pitchers Do Get Lonely will fault Berkow for his proclivity for historical subjects, and for the occasional revelations of his own athletic pursuits. In his defense, it seems fair to paraphrase the response that Berkow gave when asked why, in his 40's, he still played pickup basketball: Why shouldn't he?
Trying to slip a one-liner past Joe Garagiola is, as pitcher Curt Simmons once said about throwing a fastball by Henry Aaron, like trying to sneak the sunrise past a rooster. For this reason, along with his breezy delivery, Garagiola has enjoyed a long and successful television career. Unfortunately, It's Anybody's Ballgame (Contemporary Books, Inc., $17.95), Garagiola's collection of anecdotes, autobiographical and otherwise, suggests that his skills do not translate to the printed page.
Garagiola's apt perceptions of the changes made in baseball during the past 40 years and his fondness for the sport ("I've never seen a game I didn't like") are manifest. He offers some humorous stories—such as how Reggie Jackson once delayed an at bat so that NBC could finish airing a taped interview with him. There are also a few nice "Lawdie" Berra tales; a moving discussion of his father's affection for Harry Truman; and the admission from Garagiola's own catching days that, by rubbing a little shoe polish in his mitt, he made pitches sound terrifyingly loud.
Yet the book gets bogged down in an unrelenting stream of mildly amusing baseball and television stories. Such tales are fine when the score is 7-1 and Joe is passing them along to Vin Scully in the booth, but they make for so-so reading.