Let's see. . .here's 300-plus pages on one major league pitch. . .figure 120,000 games in baseball history. . .about 250 pitches per game. . .that's 25 million pitches. . .75 billion pages. . .it's a good thing Sowell, an Oklahoman sportswriter, picked a memorable pitch to write about. A dreadful pitch, in fact--the one thrown by Yankee hurler Carl Mays on August 16, 1920, that killed Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman. But, of course, the deadly toss itself occupies about a paragraph here; the rest is filler, pre-and-post-pitch history, a vigorous, meticulously researched portrait of baseball just before the Twenties began to roar. Sowell, who has the instincts of a novelist, tends to focus on the players. The most interesting by far is Mays, ""a sullen and moody loner"" with a ""dour expression"" and a nasty submarine delivery, hated throughout the league for his head-hunting ways. Chapman, a golden boy of ""unfailing cheerfulness"" who married into Cleveland's elite, never comes entirely to life (but, then again, devils always intrigue more than angels). Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Tris Speaker, and other Hall-of-Famers also loom large as the story twists and turns through the Black Sox Scandal, the outlawing of the spitter and the shiner, the emergence of the home run, and other topics of great interest to early baseball buffs. Through it all sounds the dirge of impending doom. ably orchestrated by Sowell, as the players march inexorably toward that muggy, hot day of death in New York's Polo Grounds. A novelty in the baseball-book crop, which usually features biographies of individual players or retellings of memorable pennant races. As such--and for its own many merits--chalk this one up in the win column.