Sports Collectors Digest: Fireside Books of Baseball

By Marty Appel

The recent publication of “Baseball: A Literary Anthology,” by the Library of America (edited by Nicholas Dawidoff) has been hailed as one of the best new baseball books of the year, but to many, it really recalls those wonderful “Fireside Books” edited by Charles Einstein beginning almost half a century ago. What fun they were!

We caught up with Charlie, 75, at his home in southern New Jersey, in an area formerly known as Mays Landing. It was an interesting place for him to settle, as he had been a friend to Willie and a frequent biographer (four books) over the years, and had even moved from New York to San Francisco when the Giants moved, covering the team for the Examiner. As one of those who was in the press box when Bobby Thomson homered in the 1951 playoffs, he had brought a lot of Giants history with him.

Charlie brought a touch of show biz with him as well. His father, Harry, was a radio comedian who often appeared on the Eddie Cantor Show as “Parkyakarkas,” and his half-brother Albert is well known to movie audiences as Albert Brooks, choosing wisely, no doubt, not to go through life as Albert Einstein. (A third brother, believe it or not, is comic stuntman Super Dave Osborne). Charlie himself wrote TV scripts for programs from “Playhouse 90” to “Lou Grant,” and is today writing entertainment news from Atlantic City for the Newark Star Ledger.

A sometime novelist and correspondent for INS, the International News Service in the early ‘50s, he was now free-lancing, when his agent phoned and asked if he would be interested in doing a baseball version of Simon & Schuster’s “Fireside” series of books, which had begun with golf, boxing, and playing cards.

“It wasn’t as though I had been inspired by anything,” he says. “The editor at Simon & Schuster, Peter Schwed, had been through the drill on the other books. I told him I would be happy to edit the volume, but they were the ones with the big staff – they would have to run down rights and permissions. He agreed, and we were off. There really wasn’t anything quite like it before.”

So Charlie began to dig into the annals of baseball reporting, baseball essays, baseball fiction, baseball photography, and even baseball cartoons. The book would have it all. “I found so much stuff by favorites of mine, like John Lardner, Tom Meany, Red Smith, Lee Allen, others, that I decided to limit it to one per author.”

The book begins with Franklin P. Adams’ “Tinker to Evers to Chance,” includes James T. Farrell, Zane Grey, Paul Gallico, Roger Angell, Ring Lardner, P.G. Wodehouse, Thomas Wolfe, Damon Runyan, and a particularly heartwarming letter from Rudy York to his young son, as told to Furman Bisher, “I Made Enough Mistakes for Both of Us.”

There is spot reporting on memorable moments, great cartoons by John Gallagher with his pickle-nose characters, Norman Rockwell, Charles Dana Gibson, and Willard Mullin. The book became an instant treasure, and with 85,000 copies sold, it hardly seemed as though you could walk into a fan’s home in the ‘50s and ‘60s without seeing it. Although published late in 1956, Charlie even got Don Larsen’s October ’56 perfect game in there – right on pages 346A and 347A, tucked between some James Thurber fiction and Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First.”

“I got almost everything I wanted into that volume,” he says, “except for two things. I couldn’t get permission to use the lyrics for “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” the copyright not having expired, and I really wanted to get in a piece by Shirley Jackson from her book ‘Raising Demons’. But she was reissuing the work, and her publisher wouldn’t let us use it. Oddly, that was my impetus for doing the Second Fireside Book two years later – we were able to include her piece. And then we did a Third in 1968, and Simon & Schuster even sold all three volumes together in a nice slipcase.”

Volumes Two and Three sold about 35,000 copies each, so the franchise was alive and well; those were good marks. Still, it would be another 19 years before the Fourth Fireside Book was issued, and although still with Simon & Schuster, (their Fireside imprint), it was only issued in softcover, and at a smaller size than the previous volumes. “That hurt,” says Charlie. “A lot of people love these books, and they wanted the fourth to fit in with the others.”

The fourth brought the number of pieces to over 400, plus some 400 illustrations, and a total of more than a million and a half words. And from them came The Baseball Reader (1980) and the New Baseball Reader, (1991), sort of “Greatest Hits” compilations, which has kept important, and just plain well-written pieces, continuously in print. It is hard to pick up any of the four volumes without lingering long and hard over many of the pieces. And Charlie mixed old and new into each volume, so that even the Fourth Fireside Book includes the ’61 All-Star Game and more Ring Lardner, plus the likes of W.C. Heinz, John Updike, Garrison Keillor, James Michener, Tom Wicker, George Will, Mike Royko, Philip Roth and Mordecai Reichler.

With the passage of years, the books become harder to find, and the Third Fireside Book tends to be the most difficult, usually seen around $40 or $50 at used book sites or stores.

The books did inspire John Thorn to come out with two editions of “The Armchair Book of Baseball,” (1985 and 1987), which continued in the fine tradition of salvaging great baseball writing and giving it a greater permanence. As such, all of these efforts have succeeded brilliantly.

The concept of “fireside chats” go back to the Franklin Roosevelt administration, and may not mean much to today’s generation of readers. But when you pick up the Fireside Books – find whatever nook makes you comfortable – and enjoy.