About the Book “The Grandest Stage: A History of the World Series”

From a Wall Street Journal review by David M. Shribman of the book by Tyler Kepner titled “The Grandest Stage: A History of the World Series”:

No game worships the past the way baseball does, so as the MLB playoffs begin their interminable, bewilderingly circuitous march toward the World Series, let’s recall what the fall classic once was. It used to be that the World Series was the highlight of the sporting calendar. It used to be that schoolchildren would race home on an October afternoon to listen to and, in later years, to watch the World Series. It used to be that the World Series was such a potent social and cultural marker that presidential candidates didn’t really focus on the fall election until after it was over.

These days the highlight of the national sports calendar begins on a gridiron around 6:30 p.m. Eastern on a Sunday in February; the Series games are at night and end long past youngsters’ bedtimes; and American politics has been transformed into a permanent campaign with no regard for the fall classic or any other sports event.

The World Series is still celebrated by some but remembered by many mostly for its earlier, unforgettable dazzle, like a fading Hollywood star. And fade it has: The first game of the 2022 NFL season drew more television and digital streaming viewers than the last game of the 2021 World Series, and the baseball finale took more than a half-hour longer to complete.

Tyler Kepner’s “The Grandest Stage” isn’t likely to reverse these trends and restore the Series to its cherished earlier status. But it may remind older readers of baseball’s once-upon-a-time glory and nudge younger ones to stay up late and watch a sports drama that doesn’t involve running backs crashing into immovable walls of defenders and Brobdingnagian figures entering the concussion protocol. If the Series comes down to the Yankees and Mets (as it did in 2000), it is possible that viewership will go up.

Mr. Kepner, a longtime sport reporter at the New York Times, presents “a history of the World Series” but not by marching inning-by-inning through every game. “The Grandest Stage” is organized in seven chapters, in imitation of a full-length World Series itself. (This year’s could end with a final game as late as Nov. 5.) Each is devoted to a theme—e.g., managing in a World Series, building a winner, celebrating unlikely heroes, telling “sidebar stories.” The format allows Mr. Kepner to sweep in details and dramatic moments from Series across the decades. The effect is akin to a veteran reporter reviewing his week’s scrawlings, finding the appealing bits and pieces he has collected along the way, and sprinkling them into an inviting Sunday notes column.

Many of the highlights of Series past are here in one way or another: the Black Sox throwing the 1919 Series and Don Larsen throwing a perfect-game masterpiece in 1956 for the Yankees, Bill Buckner’s muff at first base in 1986, handing the Mets a crucial win on their way to the Series victory; Enos Slaughter’s mad dash to home plate and into history in 1946, when he scored the winning run for the Cardinals from first base in Game 7; Bill Mazeroski’s ninth-inning, Series-winning blast in 1960 for the Pirates and injured, hobbling Kirk Gibson’s ninth-inning bomb in the first game in 1988, giving the Dodgers a victory and propelling them ultimately to a World Series crown. Many forgotten moments are recalled, too, like Hal Smith’s eighth-inning home run for the Pirates that made Mazeroski’s clout meaningful and the walk to Mike Davis (batting average: .196) that made Gibson’s two-run, game-winning homer possible. It turns out that, as Dodger fan Barbra Streisand might have told us, time has rewritten many lines, conferring legendary status to some and not others.

Of course some of the lines can’t be rewritten and shouldn’t be. One of them—the one about Game 6 of the 1975 Series, Cincinnati at Boston, bottom of the 12th inning—has a hidden irony that Mr. Kepner sketches with great skill. It involves, as every fan knows, Carlton Fisk, the incomparable Red Sox catcher and, for one incandescent moment, a performance artist on the first-base path. There he is forever—in countless film clips as in memory—his body contorted in a plea to the baseball gods, waving the ball he catapulted into the cold New England air away from foul territory—in a movement that is invariably described as “willing” the ball fair. Fisk’s home run tied the Series and kept Boston’s hopes alive. John Kiley, the Fenway organist, played the Hallelujah Chorus.

Wild celebrations—though without Handel—broke out beyond the ballpark. Where, exactly? As Roger Angell told us in prose that fans of a certain age can recite without checking: “in Brookline, Mass., and Brooklin, Maine; in Beverly Farms and Mashpee and Presque Isle and North Conway and Damariscotta; in Pomfret, Connecticut, and Pomfret, Vermont; in Wayland and Providence and Revere and Nashua, and in both the Concords and all four Manchesters; and in Raymond, New Hampshire (where Carlton Fisk lives), and Bellows Falls, Vermont (where Carlton Fisk was born).” It’s a Bosox moment that can’t be enhanced: great if you’re a Boston partisan; not so great if you’re for the Reds. Then Mr. Kepner tells us what we have all forgotten: Fisk went 0-for-3 in Game 7, the Sox lost, and it’s the Reds who did the celebrating in (as Angell might have written) Madeira, Montgomery, Mariemont and other outposts of Cincinnati fandom.

And so in these pages fans relive the landmarks of the game they remember and discover the ones they missed while they were watching football or the NBA. Mr. Kepner is an enlightened and enlightening tour guide, as befits a writer who, he tells us, has seen every Series game for two decades plus, 21 before joining the Times. He has an eye for the odd fact: Lew Burdette (1957), Sandy Koufax (1965) and Mickey Lolich (1968) pitched complete games in Game 5 and went on to pitch complete games on two days’ rest in Game 7. You won’t see anything like that this month. Complete games are as rare these days as strikeouts are common.

For all its flaws, baseball remains a game that, as Mr. Kepner puts it, “offers infinite permutations that no model can fully anticipate.” How else can we explain the 1926 Series ending with Babe Ruth being thrown out trying to steal second with the winning run at the plate? This year, Aaron Judge belted 62 homers. Even a lifelong Yankee hater has to tip his blue hat (with the distinctive red “B”) to him and hope that the summer game flourishes—and that its championship series, the annual coronation moment in a brilliant American autumn, regains its status as the Grandest Stage.

David Shribman, former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, teaches in the Max Bell School of Social Policy at Montreal’s McGill University.

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