The spring baseball books will start coming out soon. I'd like to try to have more book reviews this year, and not necessarily long ones either. Have you ever read James Agee's movie reviews for Time magazine (collected in the essential Agee on Film)--he'd write these killer little wrap-ups in three or four sentences that are as appealing, in their own way, as a five-page Pauline Kael bender.
I've run book reviews by Chris DeRosa for several years now and he recently sent me a file of his complete book reviews from the past eight years. There are a couple of longer, Yankee-related critiques that I'll post shortly, but for now, check out a DeRosa sampler (again, I found myself drawn to the short reviews).
Essays from the 60s to now. As Richard Ford says in the introduction, Angell is not a baseball romanticist, and it's true he's too light on his feet to be labeled a sentimentalist, but he does write with great affection for the game, in an adult voice that never takes itself too seriously. This collection features many examples of his strengths: the eye for the telling detail, the felicitous turns of phrase, and the sweet wrap-ups. I read him to remember, rather than to learn, but I learned some things too. Check out this description, from the 1980 essay "Distances."
Gibson's pitch flashed through the strike zone with a unique, upward-moving, right-to-left sail that snatched it away from a right handed batter or caused it to jump up and in at a left-handed swingera natural break of six to eight inchesand hitters who didn't miss the ball altogether usually fouled it off or nudged it harmlessly into the air. The pitch, which was delivered with a driving, downward flick of Gibson's long forefinger and middle finger (what pitchers call "cutting the ball"), very much resembled an inhumanly fast slider, and was often taken as such by batters unfamiliar with his stuff.
You know that great baseball conversation you wish you could have with Bill James? This is it. Nine-hundred player comments provide James a forum for a free-wheeling and fascinating discussion in which he proves himself not only the game's greatest analyst, but its ablest historian and keenest practical observer. Some people assume James knows abstract numbers but they know actual baseball. In fact, James runs rings around his critics as a student of "actual" baseball. No one watches the game like he does, or at least no one watches it like he does and can also connect what he sees to the game's larger contexts. The guy is a genius. Perhaps the best baseball book ever published.
Rob Neyer wrote a glowing review of this book when it was reprinted in 2004. I wanted to check it out, but it was shrink-wrapped and I thought I maybe had read it at the Closter Public Library about (geez) 18 years ago. Finally I saw an unwrapped copy and flipped through. I quickly understood what Neyer and other people thought was so great about it. There's a lot in there about Lyndon Johnson and the war and such. It's not about Willie so much as the times, see? Nah! I mean who would turn to a Willie Mays bio for a history of the Sixties?
The best history of the Yankees ever written, though not necessarily definitive. Stout's writing can be strangely informal, but at times lively. The analysis of the baseball on the field is strictly conventional and not as probing as it should be, but no other book has tried to synthesize the history team in as much detail and on as many levels. Stout is at his best on the politics of the early American League, but he's also interesting when trashing Ralph Houk, profiling Steinbrenner, and enthusing about Torre's Yankees. Good photos, with celebrity pinch-writers contributing essays, including the obligatory Molly O'Neill piece. David Halberstam's essay on George Weiss reiterates the legitimate criticisms, but makes no attempt whatsoever to explain why he was a great GM, nor does Ira Berkow's effort shed much light on Stengel.
The 1939 Yankees get their book. It's too bad they waited so long to make their move on the 1927 Yankees. They might have been top dog for a while if they'd jelled before 1998, before DiMaggio died. Tofel isn't the only one to do this, but he repeats without comment the quotes saying that Lou didn't forgive Babe and didn't hug him back on Lou Gehrig Day in 1939. However, Gehrig's fingers are clearly visible on Ruth's shoulder in the accompanying photograph. Maybe he didn't forgive him anyway.
The analysis of the team is pretty conventional and not deep. But it does provide the definitive account of the demise of Lou Gehrig. Tofel cites medical journal articles that plausibly claim that Gehrig was feeling physical effects of his disease in 1938, even though his stats don't show a tell-tale ski-slope across the season. The portrait of Gehrig, fleshed out by personal correspondence, is the richest part of the book, but it offers other interesting tidbits such as: Art Fletcher led the team in a singing of "Roll Out the Barrel," after every win. The players treated the All Star Game with the utmost seriousness, on par with the World Series. In the summer of 1940, Gehrig sued the Daily News for suggesting that the Yankees' struggles were due to a team-wide ALS infection. He won a settlement.
The real story of Mel Stottlemyre's career as a pitching coach revolves around his misguided effort to teach Dwight Gooden the cut fastball, and Mariano Rivera's later development of the very same pitch. Of the former, Stottelmyre has nothing to say, and on the latter, he writes: "From the first time I saw him he was throwing his legendary cutter." Most people date the cutter to the 1997 season, as opposed to 1996, Stottlemyre and Rivera's first year together. Either Stottlemyre has it totally wrong, or maybe Rivera was mixing in the cutter more than we thought in 1996. I do have that tape of game 2 of the 1995 ALDS where he throws what the broadcasters describe as a "real good cut fastball."
Don Zimmer, features Gerbil in his Yankee helmet, but the photo I clipped for the baseball annual is a lot more spontaneous. Some might think that Zimmer, part of the Boys of Summer, the '62 Mets, the tragic Red Sox, a Wrigley miracle, and Torre's Yanks, would have a lot of good stories for a book like this. But Don Zimmer isn't an observer type. He's a funny character in other people's stories. A standing-in-the-bookstore review reveals nothing amusing in this one.
Roger Angell has written a book about David Cone's 2000 season. Cone is known as a guy who isn't a rube, but he's never been that interesting either. The excerpt in the New Yorker was a bore, with Cone and Angell fretting about his injuries and woes in mundane fashion. A whole book like this would be about as fun as Cone's 4-14 season.
Standing in the bookstore, I see that he doesn't cover Gehrig's demise in as much detail as Tofel did. Plus you have the Ray Robinson bio. If you ask me, Lou Gehrig is borderline biography material to begin with.
Katie saw this in the art section of a great bookstore in Miami, but I thought it was too expensive. Later I bought it remaindered, and liked it so much I almost feel guilty about not paying the original price. The cards look great and this has to be one of the most beautifully designed baseball books ever published.