DON'T FORGET Ruth Ann Steinhagen. It was she who shot Eddie Waitkus, then first baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies, in 1949. Waitkus was a solid .300 hitter (without much power) and a graceful fielder, but nothing remarkable. Nonetheless Ruth Ann Steinhagen fell in love with him from afar and could not bear the agony. So one night she knocked on his hotelroom door. He opened it. Bam! She shot him.
Part of that story is included in William Humber's excellent Let's Play Ball, which is the Book of the locally controversial Exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum. The exhibit was controversial because many people thought it fulfilled the desires of its sponsor, Labatt's Brewery, more than the needs of Culture, and because it seemed more amusement arcade than history. That was probably true. The exhibit took the visitor through nine stations called "Innings." At one station the visitor went up to bat against darts of light that purported to duplicate the speed and movement of fastball, curveball, and knuckleball. They didn't.
But the organization of the world of baseball into nine sections was clever - although more useful to the author of Let's Play Ball, William Humber, than to the museum. Humber writes nine intelligent and informative essays on aspects of baseball that you don't find covered in the sports pages -the history of the game, for example, with its past and present forms in other countries, and the travelling baseball teams of the turn of the century.
But if you want an understanding of the people who play the game, you want Dan Turner's Heroes, Bums and Ordinary Men - although I prefer it by its subtitle: "Profiles in Canadian Baseball." Turner is a fine writer, and what interests him is the way the ballplayer's life mirrors his (or her) career. He spent a day each with 24 players who contributed in a significant way to the sport in this country; they range from Spaceman Bill Lee, banished from the Big Leagues to Moncton, New Brunswick, because he was too witty, through Terry Puhl (good hitter, 3 for 6 last night, decent' Canadian), to Helen Callaghan, who contributed a .299 batting average to lead her league in 1945, and a son, Casey Candaele, to the Montreal Expos. My favourite profile, however, is of Oscar Judd, surely the most stubborn man who ever lived, or he might have been another Babe Ruth. Judd was a notbad pitcher (lifetime ERA of 3.90), especially considering he wasn't allowed into the major leagues until past his prime but everyone agrees that he was a great hitter. Judd agreed, too, but said he wanted to pitch. He found playing the outfield boring. And in the '30s, if you didn't play ball with management in this case Mahatma Branch Rickey - you didn't play ball in the Big Leagues. Judd is to this day unrepentant and outspoken in Ingersoll, Ontario.
Greg Cable isn't the writer that Dan Turner is (he doesn't have Turner's fine ear for dialogue, for one thing), but he does a very decent job with Ernie Whitt's book, Catch.
This is a dangerous kind of book, of course, because Blue Jay catcher Ernie Whitt is still playing, and everyone now wants to know just what Umpire Ed Brinkman said to Ernie the night they met up with one another on the circuit in April. Brinkman said something; no one knows what. But we do know what Whitt thought of Brinkman: Whitt called Brinkman "incompetent." And he called an ex-team-mate "gutless."
You begin to understand why Ernie Whitt was in so many fights as a boy. At least, he says he was. But it is surprising to find that streak of mean in him - he seems so amiable. So amiable, in fact, that in The Official Blue Jay Album Whitt is referred to as "The Prime Minister," Throughout Catch we find a mostly diplomatic Whitt and a summarizing Cable, gracefully caressing rather than confronting uncomfortable topics, and giving good sound baseball advice: a catcher should practise his footwork, for example, because it is footwork that gives him the quick release on the throw to second to catch the stealing runner.
But in one instance, at least, Cable does seem to let Whitt's humour loose, and a very gentle summer humour it is, too. Whitt, apparently, likes to talk to opposing batters when they step into- the box. The good hitters don't seem to find this distracting. In fact, they seem to, enjoy the socializing. And among the more cheerful conversationalists is Minnesota's fine centre-fielder, Kirby Puckett. But when the Blue Jays visited Minnesota, Puckett made several fine plays to rob Whitt of base hits, so when Puckett came up to bat and said, "How's it going, E?" Whitt replied, "I'm not talking to YOU."
"I'm hitting the ball hard and you're robbing me."
"Oh, come on, E."
"No, I'm not talking to you."
And E refused to speak to Kirby until the Twins came to Exhibition Stadium. Then, when Kirby came to bat, Ernie said, "Okay, now I'll talk to you. You can't climb over our outfield fence."
The Official Blue Jays Album is at once better and worse than you might expect. 'The writing is better and the photographs are worse. And mostly it seems to be photographs - interspersed with prose pieces that describe key events in the last 12 seasons, together with capsule biographies of leading players. But only two photographs stand out: one of Willie Upshaw paying attention, which he always did (and some do not, now), and the other of Dave Stieb, suffering under the curse that defeats his pretensions to perfection. The account of the end 'of the 1988 season demonstrates that curse: Stieb took two consecutive nohitters into the ninth inning, only to see them spoiled by fluke hits.
Which explains - if it is necessary - why baseball players are so superstitious. They realize they are at the mercy of the gods, rough infields, and bad lighting. It is the kind of thing that the Greeks recognized, and Homer wrote up (sort of). It was therefore only natural for Bernard Malamud to turn to baseball when he came to write his Homeric novel, The Natural - which opens with the shooting of a ballplayer by a woman, very like the shooting (as William Humber points out) of Eddie Waitkus by Ruth Ann Steinhagen. Which is why we must remember Ruth Ann Steinhagen.