08/13/2008 5:03 PM ET
Memoir: Growing up with baseball
The role of the game in a young fan's life
By Doug Miller / MLB.com
"The Crowd Sounds Happy: A Story of Love, Madness, and Baseball," isn't your typical baseball story, but that's the point. There's no such thing as a typical baseball story, and that's one of the many things that make the game great.
Nicholas Dawidoff, the author of the new memoir (Pantheon, 267 pages), has written three previous books, including "The Fly Swatter," which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and the best-selling baseball biography of Moe Berg, "The Catcher Was a Spy."
For this book, Dawidoff turned inward, crafting a memoir of his childhood in the 1970s, when his mentally ill father was either absent from Dawidoff's life in New Haven, Conn., or increasingly difficult to be around when Dawidoff would visit him in New York.
The young writer's grandest form of escape came from the Red Sox games he listened to on the radio and the images of the men in uniform he could conjure all on his own.
"I could see their faces in my imagination," Dawidoff says. "It was very satisfying to hear about these incredibly heroic figures coming through the radio. You could make them into what you wanted them to be.
"I was a Red sox fan, but I was really writing about the sensation of being a fan. The game is so far away from you when you're in your room listening to it, but the players were there for me. They behaved the way I needed them to."
Along the way, "The Crowd Sounds Happy" also details Dawidoff's upbringing with an admirable single mother and the awkward, difficult accoutrements of adolescence relived in vivid, often heartbreaking detail.
But for baseball purposes, "The Crowd Sounds Happy" succeeds by identifying with the very private world of the game that every fan has experienced in one way or another.
"One of the beautiful things about baseball is that it has a pretty unique parallel with the country's history and with our daily calendar," says Dawidoff, who also is the editor of the Library of America's "Baseball: A Literary Anthology" and is a Guggenheim, Civitella Ranieri and Berlin Prize Fellow and the current Anschutz Distinguished Fellow at Princeton University.
"In a funny way, it's always there. As a kid, you see your surroundings differently from moment to moment, and just as you see things from moment to moment as a kid, they change and accrue and expand. Your surroundings, hometown, parents, friends, schoolyard, downtown -- all of that perspective evolves. And that happens as baseball fan, too. It's growing up with you. You can't be same kind of fan at age 6 as you are at 66."
Dawidoff says he's learned as he got older that baseball players are "men who play sport and they do it very beautifully physically."
"Maybe they won't speak as well as you think they will, maybe they're not as heroic as you once thought they were, but as an adult, you realize that beauty is sufficient," he says. "One of the great virtues as a human being is the ability to appreciate what people do well. You know, the sort of thinking that says, 'We all play it, but they do it so much better.'"
Dawidoff says his book has connected with baseball fans of all types -- even the biggest Red Sox haters around.
"I've heard from huge Yankee fans who write me very flattering letters," he says. "And Red Sox fans, of course. And honestly, what I really had in mind when I wrote the book if I thought of my ideal reader, it was women.
"Many women are mystified as to the hold and pull baseball has on so many Americans. They look at their fathers, brothers or husbands and are baffled by what this pastime has to do with the rest of life and why people are so into it and care so much.
"And those are some of the most gratifying letters I get. It's exciting to think of a woman sitting in Iowa or Oklahoma City with a husband who's a huge baseball fan and she wants to understand. Maybe this would be a way of explaining it."
Dawidoff, who played baseball at Harvard, attributes many literary qualities to baseball and says he's happy to be included in its long written history.
"Different types of guys can play it," he says. "They can be tall or short, which separates baseball from other sports. And the game itself has these very charged moments followed by many moments that go by when nothing happens at all. People can think about what just happened and what's about to happen.
"That's the writer's process, too."
Doug Miller is a Senior Writer for MLB.com/Entertainment.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.