‘Yells for Ourselves’ gets up close and personal with the NY Mets

Sports stories — and especially baseball stories — are written at certain altitudes, as it were. Some are written from 30,000 feet, taking a wide overview of what’s happening across a broad span of time. Some cruise along at a lower altitude, focusing on a particular team or player but still encompassing a number of years, or vice versa. And still others, like Yells for Ourselves: A Story of New York City and the New York Mets at the Dawn of the Millennium (2019, Quill) do their best work at ground level, up close and personal with a particular team at a very specific point in time.

In the case of Matthew Callan’s historical recounting, the team is the New York Mets and the time is 1999 and 2000. Callan writes with the enthusiasm of a fan but the skill of a journalist. His primary source appears to be his personal observation of the seasons in question, and his only secondary sources are quotes from contemporary news accounts. As such, the book is somewhat lacking in the kind of historical grounding that I think Callan intended, that could only be achieved by revisiting the key figures in the story to get their perspective from today. He does do a good job of placing the team within the context of New York City’s history and its battle for the city’s affections with the New York Yankees, perhaps the most famous sports franchise in any sport. As Callan tells it, the Mets ascended in attention and affection when New York was going through tough times in the 1970s and 1980s, battling high crime and bad press. In those days, the Mets were symbolic of the scrappy blue-collar underdog identity to which the city’s residents related most strongly. As the city righted itself in the 1990s (albeit under somewhat questionable law enforcement policies) its identity tilted more toward Wall Street and the Yankees, with their illustrious history of world championships and timelessly “classic” look, once again leaving the Mets on the outside looking in.

Even more than those analogies between baseball and economics, however, Yells for Ourselves is primarily a nearly day-by-day accounting of two seasons of the New York Mets, with all the ups and downs that devout followers find so agonizing. The sheer detail might be overwhelming to any but the most avid Mets fans. More general baseball enthusiasts should find the reminders of familiar players and events a pleasant trip down memory lane, along with a glimpse behind the curtain of events they only viewed from afar. Casual fans and those who do not follow baseball at all may well find themselves turning instead to something a bit less meticulously detailed.

For all that Yells for Ourselves seems to be a labor of love by a lifelong Mets fan, the writing is professional and far from a slog. It is well written and edited, and does not suffer from a confusion of timeline or purpose. In that Callan has more than done his favorite team justice, even as he despairs at their foibles.

Abe Lincoln had the write stuff

From the start, he needed to overcome internal and external opposition by willful acts of self-definition, the ambitious farm boy autodidact becoming a splitter of words and ideas rather than fence rails.

Fred Kaplan, Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer

I’m having trouble writing this review because I have so much to say. I tried channeling the 16th President by asking myself WWAW (What Would Abe Write)? That didn’t help much, so I’ll just boil it down to one sentence: This book (published by HarperCollins in 2008) is fantastic.

OK, maybe a few more sentences. As the title declares, Kaplan examines Lincoln’s life through the prism of the writings he left behind. Those writings include not only published essays and speeches but also letters and fragments of letters he wrote to friends. Kaplan begins in Lincoln’s childhood, looking at the books that we know young Abe had access to at home, especially once his stepmother joined the household. Some of them are familiar and unsurprising — Shakespeare, the Bible — and others raised my eyebrows. Lord Byron was a favorite source of inspiration for Lincoln, as was … Scottish poet Robert Burns?! Apparently Lincoln often quoted entire poems or long passages of Burns’ poems from memory, even the saucy bits.

cover image of book

It was fascinating to learn that Lincoln wrote on all sorts of topics, not just political events and issues of the day. Following a trip in 1844 to his childhood home in Indiana, he wrote what appears to have been intended as a four-canto poem in the tradition of Thomas Gray, whose “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” was a favorite of Lincoln. Kaplan also cites influences from Wordsworth, Burns and Chaucer in the poem, only three cantos of which have survived. The excerpts that Kaplan quotes are melancholic and humorous in turn, reflecting on memories that gave him both pain and pleasure.

Lincoln also used writing as a way to explore his thinking on subjects of the day. He wrote and re-wrote, constantly refining his thoughts. He used writing as a way to help him clarify his own beliefs and political opinions. And he seldom spoke extemporaneously — at a minimum he worked from a set of notes for each speech he gave, in order to ensure that he could lay out his thoughts and positions in a coherent way. Kaplan describes Lincoln’s writing in a speech given to a temperance society as “a prose so lucid to read it is like looking a hundred feet through clear water.”

Kaplan expends most of his energy and analysis to the years before Lincoln became president; in an eight-chapter book the presidency is entirely confined to the final chapter. That’s one reason I can’t view this book as the end-all and be-all of exploring Lincoln’s life or his genius for language. The other reason is that while partial quotations of Lincoln’s writing to illustrate specific points are plentiful, Kaplan does not include any speech or essay in its entirety to allow us to fully absorb Lincoln’s genius. Perhaps there are limitations on the amount of text that can legally be quoted? At any rate, it was a loss I felt keenly.

I probably don’t need to say that I highly recommend this book. While there’s a fair amount of detail about Lincoln’s life beyond his writing, some readers will find value in also reading a more comprehensive biography, especially one that focuses on his presidency. As for me, I now feel a great deal of affinity for the man who declared:

Writing — the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye — is the great invention of the world. Great in the astonishing range of analysis and combination which necessarily underlies the most crude and general conception of it — great, very great in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and of space; and great, not only in its direct benefits, but greatest help, to all other inventions. … Its utility may be conceived by the reflection that to it we owe everything which distinguishes us from savages. Take it from us, and the Bible, all history, all science, all government, all commerce, and nearly all social intercourse go with it.

Abraham Lincoln