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October 11, 2009

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Magic of one game

THERE is no more intense and important rivalry in sport than the one between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. Just ask the players, present and former; the fans of each team, so eager to characterize themselves as more rabid than the other ball club's, as well as more scornful; and the respective news media congregations, given to attaching near-October gravity to the season's first three-game series in April at Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park.

In the minds of Yankee folks and fans, competitive debate can always be scuttled by simply recounting the team's actual World Series successes, albeit on hold at 26 championships since the last one in 2000.

But even before the Red Sox exorcised 86 years of curses and assorted catastrophes four years later, by winning the first of two Series this decade, New Englanders could cling to the belief that Boston's failures were so flamboyantly memorable that losing was beside the point. Contrary to what fans of the Yankees' winning machine might think, searing pain only heightened the passion and meaning of it all.

Paying homage

Mark Frost's "Game Six," the gripping story of the penultimate game of the 1975 World Series, does nothing to dispel the existential wonderfulness of Red Sox Nation, in addition to paying deserved homage to the winner of that Series, Cincinnati's Big Red Machine.

As it happens, Frost's book soars compared with "Perfect," Lew Paper's densely researched recreation of Don Larsen's unmatched post-season pitching feat: 27 up, 27 down in the fifth game of the 1956 World Series, won by the Yankees over Brooklyn Dodgers.

An accomplished author ("The Match") and television writer ("Twin Peaks"), Frost also had more live material - in the amount of game action and in the number of participants still around to elaborate on it - than Paper did. But no matter how historic the innings or how earnest the reporting, basing nearly an entire book on one game demands a deft storyteller's touch, the ability to capture individuals and explore issues while not straying too far from the field.

Frost achieves this stylistically and - given the partial subtitle, "The Triumph of America's Pastime" - convincingly. While celebrating what he effectively argues was the greatest World Series ever played, Frost rarely surrenders to the standard temptation to rhapsodize about simpler times relative to the performance-enhancement era the sport continues to grapple with. He reminds us that in 1903, when the term "World Series" was unofficially coined, there were suspicions of game fixing, and that information provided to the American League president - the aptly named Ban Johnson - was suppressed.

Barrier crashers

Only nine years removed from Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color line in 1947 (eight and 12 years, respectively, before the Yankees and the Red Sox finally caved), Paper's story offers much more about the barrier crashers in Brooklyn and beyond, and about those who resisted them.

However much is culled from previously written material, "Perfect" is rich in biographical data, devoting a chapter, or half-inning, to each of the players in the game.

This format, though, mostly succeeds in obscuring Larsen, who leads off the book but whose presence is soon after reduced to scant details at the end of chapters. Paper, who has written books about John F. Kennedy and William Paley, treats all the game's participants as equal contributors to the grand theater.

But to paraphrase Yogi Berra, Larsen was the man who made this book necessary. Forever linked as battery mates on that crisp afternoon at Yankee Stadium, Larsen and Berra - both still alive - should have been Paper's dominant characters and voices.


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