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Friday, July 23, 2004

Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville

This is a collection of 30 plus essays on baseball written by the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould over the last 20 to 30 years. Among them are two original pieces on forms of streetball in New York City when Gould was growing up and a piece discussing the lure of baseball for intellectuals like himself (which he views as purely contingent on time and place).

There is also a long tribute to Gould (he died in May of 2002) in the forward written by David Halberstam (author of Summer of '49). Many of the remaining essays appeared in various places such as the New York Times Review of Books, some of which I've read before but many of which I hadn't seen. They range from book reviews to short eulogies (of Mickey Mantle for example) to essays. One of his most famous is his essay on the disappearance of the .400 hitter originally written in 1986 for Discover magazine. He, like George Will in perhaps my favorite baseball book Men at Work, views it simply as the natural consequence of of an increasing level of play that comes closer to the "right-wall" of human ability coupled with the increasing maturity of the game. This increasing level of play tends to decrease the differences between average and stellar performers. As a result, since the mean batting average has remained roughly .260 since the 1940s, there are fewer players at both the left and right ends of the spectrum. This also tracks very well with a book that came out a couple years ago that rated the greatest hitters (for batting average) of all time through a series of statistics and determined that Tony Gwynn was the greatest.

Gould's writing is always interesting and even though he was a life long Yankees fan, he rightly despised the DH and aluminum bats. Baseball fans will find plenty to like here.

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