Fenway Fanatic Bunts a Book

By Nicholas Dawidoff
Pantheon, 271 pages, $24.95

Nicholas Dawidoff’s fourth book, The Crowd Sounds Happy, is the culmination of 22 years spent thinking and writing about baseball and family. After six years working for Sports Illustrated, Mr. Dawidoff wrote his first book The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg (1994). More recently, his The Fly Swatter: Portrait of an Exceptional Character, about his grandfather, economist Alexander Gerschenkron, was a finalist for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in biography.

In the intervening years, Mr. Dawidoff offered up a short personal essay, "My Father’s Troubles," in the June 12, 2000, issue of The New Yorker. It chronicles Mr. Dawidoff’s relationship with his mentally ill father and lays the groundwork for The Crowd Sounds Happy, a sad, occasionally poignant and darkly funny memoir about Mr. Dawidoff’s twin and countervailing passions: his love of and devotion to baseball and the shame and pity he felt toward his ailing father.

Naturally, this dichotomy is expressed in his love of the Boston Red Sox (his grandfather’s team) and his hatred of the New York Yankees, the team of the city where his father lived. Throughout his childhood and adolescence, once a month, he, along with his sister, would be forced to visit their father at his home on the Upper East Side, enduring countless embarrassments and minor indignities. "To me, [the city] was a fallen place, only to be endured, gotten over, like a case of food poisoning," he writes.


NICHOLAS DAWIDOFF’S FATHER WASN’T always disturbed. Once upon a time, he was a Yale Law graduate and newlywed, a promising young attorney with a burgeoning family. But that didn’t last long. He was laid off for being "a lame horse" and soon he was having hallucinations and acting violently.

Beginning at age 3, Nicholas lived apart from his father in New Haven with his mother, a private school teacher, and sister Sally, two years his junior. They would always be poor—another source of shame and frustration.

The Crowd Sounds Happy, which is more a set of vignettes than a sustained narrative, can be boiled down to an exercise in expunging the guilt Mr. Dawidoff feels for shunning his pitiable father and frustrating his mother when she couldn’t give him what he wanted. It also serves as a psychological treatise on the benefits of obsessive baseball fandom; it’s called transference, right?

It’s not clear, alas, that Mr. Dawidoff has improved upon his original work in The New Yorker. "My first memory of my father is of leaving him," he wrote in the magazine. "For months, he had been unhinged, experiencing hallucinations so powerful that he communicated with dead squirrels. Then he began hitting my mother, and not long after that she decided it was time for us to go."

As an opening line, it’s powerful in its unemotional directness—something the memoir lacks. In fact, the initial essay made only a few references to baseball. It’s as though the sport has been introduced to act as a buffer between the book and the reader—just as it did between young Nicholas and his anger toward his father.

Maybe Mr. Dawidoff is still relying a bit too much on baseball.

Jake Brooks, former deputy managing editor of The Observer, now works for the Daily News. He can be reached at books@observer.com. Fenway Fanatic Bunts a Book