One evening recently I took my 3-year-old son to his first baseball game. The complexities of the sport are beyond him at this point, which means any lingering memories of our outing will likely be limited to the post-home-run fireworks and our attempts, after the game, to locate the family car in the fading evening light.

Nicholas Dawidoff, on the other hand, recalls details of his first game with remarkable clarity: He was 8, and the venue was New York's Shea Stadium. The game: Mets versus Pirates, September 1971. He remembers the stop-and-go ride from Manhattan on the Queens-bound No. 7 train, the players loping from the dugout onto the outfield grass, and standing before a stained trough in the men's room. He remembers the game creeping into the 13th inning and asking his father whether they should leave. Dawidoff suggests that his father, who struggled with mental illness and was divorced from Dawidoff's mother, may have taken the question as a traitorous expression of concern for the boy's mother, waiting in Manhattan to take him back to their home in Connecticut.

Baseball and the bonds between children and parents are the leitmotifs of Dawidoff's marvelous memoir, "The Crowd Sounds Happy: A Story of Love, Madness, and Baseball." Dawidoff, who mined his family history in "The Fly Swatter," a Pulitzer Prize-nominated biography of his grandfather, has turned his extraordinary observational powers and unflinchingly candid voice on his own upbringing.

Dawidoff was 3 when his parents divorced; his mother took him and his sister to New Haven, Ct., where she, a scrupulous, penny-pinching traditionalist, taught at a local prep school and dedicated herself to imposing a near-ascetic routine on her young family. Once a month she visited the local supermarket and bought precisely enough food for 90 family meals. There were stated prohibitions on TV, bubble gum and modern conveniences she felt made people overdependent on things they didn't need. When she tired of her children carping at each other across the dinner table, she imposed a no-talking policy. From then on, everyone brought books to read at the table.

Unyielding and restrictive as it was, the order she imposed was a welcome, possibly life-saving counterweight to the disorder spawned by Dawidoff's father, whose shadowy apartment on New York's Upper West Side and shabby law office (above a Chock Full o' Nuts coffee shop) revealed a life spiraling out of control. Over time, Dawidoff became more aware—and more disdainful—of his father's erratic behavior, particularly the way he used his mental illness as a weapon in family relationships.

So Dawidoff's mother tried to expose him to things that can best be referred to as man stuff. She ushered in a parade of what Dawidoff calls "independent masculine contractors": a high school student taught him how to ride a bike, a colleague's husband went sledding with him. When Dawidoff turned 15, his mother hired a plumber to install a shower head above the family bathtub, reasoning that " 'an active man needs to take showers.' "

Confronted by multiple ways of being a man, but believing them to be completely out of his reach, Dawidoff became desperate for male role models.

Enter baseball. Dawidoff, who sought out order and craved routine, found both on the baseball diamond. As a scrappy young shortstop scooping up hundreds of grounders in an afternoon, and as a devoted Boston Red Sox fan listening to the team's games on his bedroom clock radio, Dawidoff turned to baseball as recreation, as refuge and as reference point. Indeed, baseball eventually became a kind of primer for Dawidoff's largely self-devised lessons in how to be an American boy—and eventually, his own man.

Dawidoff's grandfather, a Russian-born Harvard University economist and Red Sox fan, introduced him to Ted Williams, Tony Conigliaro, Luis Aparicio and Carl Yastrzemski, invoking them "by surname only in the same tone of intimate masculine familiarity that he used for Copperfield and Zhivago. . . . To him major league baseball was a highly symbolic world in which men like Williams and Yastrzemski and Conigliaro were knights-errant, giant killers, young men of magical valor roaming through the American League, seeking somehow to return honor and light to the northern shires of their followers."

By the time Dawidoff was a teenager, doing his homework against the tinny, AM-radio sound of the Red Sox games, he conceived of ballplayers as something at once heroic and familiar:

"Because they were so skilled at baseball, I had the idea that the Red Sox knew all the important things, had mastered life, had secrets to tell me about existence that nobody else could. . . . To me, in a small apartment I lived in with women, the Red Sox became the men in my house. There was a game every day, and that schedule created a mutual constancy of commitment."

Perhaps it's worth mentioning that I, like Dawidoff, spent my childhood as a huge baseball fan and an aspiring player, so in parts of his story—in imitating the batting stances of favorite players, or in rising for the national anthem even when watching a game on the family TV—I noted more than a passing resemblance to my own.

You don't, however, need to be a baseball fan to enjoy this book. Dawidoff is a gifted storyteller, and he recalls details with great affection and warmth. Whether he's regaling us with the personal biographies of the '75 Red Sox, describing the run-down landscapes of New Haven and New York in the mid 1970s, or painting a heartbreakingly nuanced portrait of his relationship with his parents, you'll simply want the story—his story—to continue on and on.

Dawidoff is that thoughtful, observant, candid former classmate you never knew well enough in high school and it's not until your 20-year reunion that you realize your former lab partner has become a most unlikely bard and sage.

He's also that classmate who aced his SATs, and there are passages where he seems to be flexing his verbal muscle just for the heck of it (he writes that his mother was the most "frangible" person he has ever known, and he felt his classmates' "objurgation" after the rare locker-room brawl).

But these are small complaints about such a compelling, readable book. Indeed, to ask Dawidoff for absolute perfection would be to overlook the central message of "The Crowd Sounds Happy," delivered by his mother as she consoles him after an especially painful Red Sox loss:

" 'Baseball satisfies more than your desire to win. You have moments when you think "Why am I doing this?" but then you are part of the crowd walking down Commonwealth Avenue after a game at Fenway Park and you've got something out of it even if they didn't win. All the good stories aren't about winning. . . . The good stories are about struggle.' "

The Crowd Sounds Happy: A Story of Love, Madness, and Baseball

By Nicholas Dawidoff

Pantheon, 271 pages, $24.95