John Heidenry's "The Gashouse Gang" is a nice homage to a team and era, but it's caught between genres. Heidenry, a St. Louis native and longtime Cardinals fan, clearly has a personal connection to the 1934 championship team, but he removes himself from the narrative. On the other hand, he's not a baseball writer, and is not able to offer useful analysis of the players or games -- it's less a baseball book than a popular history about a baseball team. It reads like a research project, stitching together a coherent narrative out of thousands of yellowed microfilm clips of contemporary newspapers: it's a nice achievement, but since it isn't a memoir and isn't a baseball book, the book ultimately feels neither fish nor flesh, a pleasant enough read that leaves little impression.
That's likely an overpedantic critique for all but the most devoted baseball sabermetricians, however. Cardinals fans and Missourians and casual baseball fans will find plenty to like, a loving portrait of a collection of screwballs and malcontents who barely managed to hate their opponents more than they hated each other -- then won the World Series.
Jerome "Dizzy" Dean was the best pitcher in baseball and clear star of the team, but he was also the class clown, boasting unceasingly and frequently trampling the line of good taste, as when he convinced his brother Paul (the team's second-best pitcher) to join him in leaving the team midseason in an indefinite "strike" for higher pay. Joe "Ducky" Medwick, a future triple crown winner, was a muscular loner who barely had a word that wasn't bile; Leo "The Lip" Durocher, a future Hall of Fame manager, a natty big spender who was later suspended a year for associating with gamblers, was a slick-field no-hit shortstop, and the team's captain and designated trash talker. The teetotaling Rickey was merciless in his office, constantly trading according to his maxim that it was better to get rid of a player a year early than a year late; he ultimately left the team after it began its long association with Anheuser-Busch. With such figures at his disposal, Heidenry has a rich palette with which to paint, and he does a good job bringing them alive.
Sports writing -- and baseball writing in particular, because statistics have become such a strong part of the modern game's analysis -- is deceptively difficult. Fifty years ago, it was enough to write colorful anecdotes about beefy jocks, gathering stories by drinking with the boys and preserving access by withholding any unflattering anecdote, describing their achievements in hyperbole and doggerel. Nowadays, a good sportswriter is expected to analyze, critique, and evaluate what he sees, not merely describe it using clever adjectives. Sports fans who write sports books frequently fall into this trap of merely attempting the former -- like Lee Lowenfish, who wrote a thoroughly disappointing biography of Cardinal General Manager and statistical pioneer Branch Rickey (rating: 40), who also plays a major role in this book. John Heidenry is an engaging writer with a lot of sympathy for his characters, particularly the enigmatic Dizzy Dean, whom he does a good job bringing to life. But he isn't a baseball expert, and ultimately a portrait of these men without a better understanding of their life's work falls a bit short.
The best recent baseball book I've read about a baseball star from St. Louis is Allen Barra's Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee. Barra's one of the best long-form sportswriters alive; Heidenry's a former editor of Maxim. This is a genial, well-meaning little book, a decent telling of the story of one of the most entertaining teams ever. In the hands of another, it could have been much more.
Crossposted on Remingtonstein.