The legendary baseball writer Robert Creamer died yesterday at the age of 90. He’s best remembered for his biography “Babe,” which many consider to be the last word on the subject. But I’ll always remember him for his lyrical, brilliant book “Baseball in ’41.”
My god, what a year 1941 was. I was eighteen when it began, and I turned nineteen that summer on the day Joe DiMaggio hit safely in his fifth-fourth straight game. He had kept the streak going to my birthday; it ended three days later.
1941 was the year ted Williams batted .400—.406, to be precise. And the year the Dodgers, the rowdy Brooklyn Dodgers of Leo Durocher and Larry MacPhail, survived a tumultuous, season-long, nose-to-nose pennant race to win for the first time in twenty-one years—and then lost the World Series when what would have been a game-ending third strike got past their catcher, Mickey Owen.
Is this the heritage of the hapless baseball fan, that he remembers 1941 for Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams and Mickey Owen instead of Pearl Harbor?
I read it when I was 12 or so, which is exactly the right time to read it. Old enough to appreciate history but young enough not to bat an eyelash at the thought of someone remembering 1941 for baseball rather than war.
(At some point in the fall of 2001, I remember Peter Gammons predicting on ESPN that some day in the future we would remember that year for Adam Dunn’s incredible rookie campaign, 19 homers in 66 games, rather than 9/11. By then, I was 18, and knew better.)
Creamer’s book “Babe” really is terrific, and it captures a side of humanity beyond the manchild that we tend to remember: the orphan who grew up huge and ugly and only good at one thing, who waited in vain for teams to call and ask him to manage after he’d gotten too old to play, the man who played so exuberantly that his joy in the game continued to justify his nickname.
He did the same for Casey Stengel, finding the strategic heart of the Old Perfessor, a man who nearly four decades as a loser, playing and managing mostly with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Braves, before finally landing in the Bronx and guiding the Yankees to five straight championships in his first five years there, ten pennants in 12 years. And then, too old to be a Yankee but too young to quit, he went back to Queens and started losing more than ever as the first manager of the Mets.
Both books are terrific. But “Baseball in ’41″ is the book I’ll remember most, even if they rereleased it as “Baseball and Other Things in 1941.” I’m not sure what Creamer thought of that title change, but to me it seems gratuitous. From my understanding of that book, until December of that year, other things were what happened between baseball and more baseball, like the way you’d go to a cafe for breakfast where the proprietor might have a newspaper and ask, “He get one yesterday?” No matter who you asked, they understood you meant DiMaggio, and for two straight months, the answer was always yes.
Creamer was one of those classic sportswriters that you imagine smoking and drinking and talking about that time in 1933 when Lloyd Waner nearly ran over his brother running for a fly ball in Forbes Field, a gray eminence who consulted on Ken Burns’s Baseball. And, indeed, he was one of those old guys. His prose was unpretentiously beautiful — as Jack McCallum put it, “graceful and eminently readable.”
Back in January, the blog Baseball: Past and Present scored a great interview with him, and he was as ebullient as ever: “I have occasionally quoted my long-ago family doctor who once said to me, ‘Baseball is a game of limitless dramatic possibility.’ We’ve come close to the limit — Bobby Thomson’s home run 60 years ago, the Cardinals last fall — but we haven’t reached it yet.”
Creamer wrote about baseball for nearly 60 years, and he rarely indulged in the kind of willful mythologizing pap that so many sportswriters past and present rely on — which makes them, as Creamer said of many of Jimmy Cannon’s columns, “overwrought, overdone, overwritten, mawkish.” Instead, in his love for baseball, Creamer strove to be realistic. As he wrote for Sports Illustrated in 1958:
Baseball is far from being vitally necessary to Americans. It may have no great influence on our moral outlook, and probably not a great deal to do with our physical condition (except for that slightly uncertain knee, torn in a slide into second in a softball game some years back). Who wins baseball’s pennant races is not so important to the baseball fan as the progress of the U.S. missile program (except, perhaps, to the 12-year-old fan). But, nonetheless, baseball permeates our existence. In its carefree, uncosmic, nonsignificant way, baseball is an integral part of the setting in which we live our lives. It is a major and undiminishing part of our general culture.
Rest in peace, Bob.