BASEBALL, WITH ITS rich characters, its deep hold on the grassroots, and its inherent symmetries, has been the medium for some of the best social history of our century. Following in that tradition, Robert Ashe's Even the Babe Came to Play: Small-Town Baseball in the Dirty 30s (Nimbus, 166 pages, $12.95 paper) gives us a remarkably clear and charming look at what life was like during the 1930s in the Canadian Maritimes.
The people in Even the Babe Came to Play played baseball on lousy fields, with second-rate equipment, and they played it as hard as they do in the major leagues today. They played for penny-ante stakes, often not very well, but the games were real and worth the considerable passion they put into them. The stories Ashe draws from their testimonies run the gamut of heroisms, misadventures, and bluffs, spilling out into what comes to seem like a larger and more textured panorama than the one we live in -not quite a Paradise Lost, but a strangely fine and decent era in which to enjoys life's simple pleasures.
I've got just two quibbles with the book. The first is the title, which is misleading. The Babe didn't actually come to play in the Maritimes: he showed up at an exhibition game the year after he retired from the majors and embarrassed himself for several minutes blooping pop flies before he could hit one out. My second quibble is that Ashe relates no less than three instances in which the infamous hidden-ball trick is successfully pulled off. I just don't believe it. I've played amateur baseball for 35 years, and I've never seen anyone get away with the hidden-ball trick. The teams I play on try it 20 times a year, and even though the gloves we use are so big you could hide a Corvette inside them, we still don't come close.
Nevertheless, we ought to be grateful to Ashe for putting this book together. It is better and truer than a dozen superstar biographies, and even if Ashe isn't quite Roger Angell, he has written a book that is' truer and larger than its apparent subject matter.