The boys -- and the voices -- of summers past


THE long night is about to descend. The World Series will be over and the frosts of November and December will give way to the frozen ground of deepest winter. Bring it on. I will be hibernating. I don't ski and I don't skate, and I'd as soon shovel snow as watch basketball or football, sports I once loved and once covered.

In the meantime, the new edition of Macmillan's "The Baseball Encyclopedia" -- 2,857 pages of numbers and names and lineups I once knew by heart -- will sustain me like the Bible in the lap of a Baptist.

Heavy as a ham, the ninth edition of "The Baseball Encyclopedia" has been resting in my own lap as baseball resolves another season. Imagine a book that includes complete statistics of every player who has put on a major-league uniform since 1876, the year Rutherford B. Hayes won the presidency without winning the popular vote.

In addition, more than 130 players in the old Negro League are brought into the fold, along with team records of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

Scorekeeping errors from games a century ago are corrected, batting averages are adjusted to the thousandth of a point, and the game's 19th-century origins in rounders and crickets is sketchily recorded.

At $55, "The Baseball Encyclopedia" is not a book for the casual fan. I am not much more than that these days, but it is the peculiar quality of baseball to preserve one's earliest impressions of a world beyond the home and the schoolyard.

It is a game of numbers but also of names, etched in one's mind early on. I go back a long way, long enough to remember when Skip Caray was Harry's 19-year-old boy and Harry's partner in the booth was Gus Mancuso, an old catcher. The names that live in my memory are not those of last year's batting champion, or maybe any year's batting champion, but those of players I never saw play. They are, literally, nothing more than names.

But no sport is as rich in names as baseball. They are the names of tobacco-stained country boys who left the mill towns of the South and scamps who escaped the tenements of the North to play a vagabond game that paid a pittance. They were louts and drunkards, but they were our louts and our drunkards.

And sometimes, too, they were men on the make. Shoeless Joe Jackson, the sweet-swinging son of a South Carolina millworker, could neither read nor write but was not ignorant of the world's ways. During the Black Sox scandal of 1919, when Jackson and others were accused of fixing the World Series, Shoeless Joe was leaving the courtroom and an unbelieving boy pleaded, "Say it ain't so, Joe." Shoeless Joe couldn't say it wasn't so.

They are the names of the ordinary player as much as the feared slugger or the 20-game winner. They are echoes of another time: Silver Flint and Honest John Kelley, Oyster Burns and Ossie Bluege, Rebel Oakes and Snapper Kennedy, Pants Rowland and Schoolboy Rowe, Wild Bill Donovan and Johnny Dickshot.

Even the managers of another day possessed a certain picturesqueness. The Phillies are managed today by Jim Fregosi; 60 years ago they were managed by Kaiser Wilhelm.

The unknowing could mistake the rosters from baseball's past with the blues. Muddy Ruel and Dazzy Vance, Gabby Street and Puddin' Head Jones are names that were intimately familiar to me once.

Some of them, when I look up their careers in "The Baseball Encyclopedia," weren't so formidable as I had once imagined. I find that Puddin' Jones, who played third base for the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1940s and '50s, had a career batting average of only .258. Lodged in my memory were game-winning hits that beat the St. Louis Cardinals when I was young; forgotten were the errors and strikeouts. Likewise the players who had my innocent allegiance. Vinegar Bend Mizell, so named because he was from Vinegar Bend, Ala., was only a journeyman after all.

Seeing these players in their full measure, I think of my son, who has somehow got it in his 6-year-old head that Mark Wohlers will slam the door on any threat that presents itself in late innings. I don't want to disappoint him. Heroes will go their own way soon enough. Someday, perhaps, he'll burrow through the 19th edition of this hefty volume and look up "Mark Wohlers" and find that he was just another pitcher. Or maybe, alas, he will look

upon numbers that hold the eye in wonder.

Either way, he won't be looking up Red Rolfe or Cy Slapnicka or Urban Shocker. Names like those were part of my growing up, not his, and they evoke for me something more than just seasons gone by.

Baseball, the poet Donald Hall wrote in "Fathers Playing Catch With Sons," is a game of years and of decades. I shift the weight of this heavy book, dredge up another forgotten ballplayer and know how many it really has been.

Michael Skube is books editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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