The prose of a newspaper sports columnist has a life span briefer than a housefly's. His words go into the trash bin every day. The best writers deserve more permanence, and Joe Williams, a columnist for the old New York World-Telegram from 1931 to 1964, was one of the best. The Joe Williams Baseball Reader (Algonquin Books) resurrects many of Williams's pieces, which show him to be an excellent craftsman who also possessed a crackling sense of humor and a fine touch for conveying emotion simply and economically.
The feeling in Williams's writing often arises out of his anecdotal style. That isn't surprising, considering that in his day newspapermen and ballplayers were more often drinking buddies than adversaries. He invites his readers to converse with the greats of the game as if they were friends, and one of Williams's best elbow-bending pals was Babe Ruth. Williams's son, Peter, the editor of this collection, devotes 15 of the book's 200 pages to his father's columns on the Babe. Williams is the man who most believe began the myth of Ruth's famous "called shot," and if he helped make Ruth larger than life, no one objected. Williams did it with flair.
In June 1944 he visited Ruth in the hospital, where the Babe had recently undergone surgery to have cartilage "yanked from his right knee." Williams's keen eye saw an aging but still incorrigible man: "When we called he was overflowing a regulation hospital bed, propped up in a cloud of pillows, smoking a bowl-shaped pipe. At his side on a table stood several perspiring bottles of beer.
" 'I haven't had a belt of whiskey or smoked a cigar since April,' he volunteered, running a prodigious paw through his hair, now fast turning gray. Switching to a pipe and to beer (there was a case on ice in the bathroom) constitutes the Spartan life for the Babe."
Other baseball men with large appetites inspired some of Williams's best quips and most euphonious language. In a 1930 dispatch from the Brooklyn Dodgers' spring training site in Clearwater, Fla., Williams ruminated on the girth of manager Wilbert Robinson in this flight of fancy: "On very hot Florida days Mr. Robinson is a distinct boon to the community, and mothers bring their young out-of-doors to allow them to play their childish games in the soothing shadows cast by the gentleman's superstructure." Robinson, wrote Williams, "suggesting, as he moved over the sandy stretches, a plump dromedary laden with a cargo of choice beefs and suets."
Of massive Detroit Tiger outfielder Bob Fothergill he wrote, "His barrier to greatness is a Graf Zeppelin belt line." And when two Detroit managers failed to get Fothergill below 256 pounds, Williams wrote, "Upon the heaving contours of Mr. Fothergill's embonpoint two Detroit managerial careers have already crashed."
Williams was as masterly with pathos as with humor. Shoeless Joe Jackson was a longtime acquaintance, and Williams's reflections on him are poignant reminders of the man ruined by the Black Sox scandal. Williams recalled life on the road with Jackson, who was "pure country, " in a 1946 column: "He carried his own tonic: triple-distilled corn. And on occasions he carried a parrot, a multicolored pest whose vocabulary was limited to screeching, 'You're out!'
" 'That kid's got more brains than the old man,' Jackson would beam...as he poured crystal-clear corn for his few selected guests. This was his painfully brave way of laughing at his own ignorance; he couldn't read or write, and down deep, this saddened and humiliated him."
Williams renders many of the game's greats in such simple, feeling strokes. These newspaper columns deserve a second life.
Jay Jennings is a former reporter for "Sports Illustrated."