Baseball Toaster Bronx Banter
The Year in Books (Part Three)
2004-12-26 13:12
by Alex Belth

By Christopher DeRosa

Roger Angell, Game Time: A Baseball Companion (2003)

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 swinger—a natural break of six to eight inches—and 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.

Bob Gibson had Mariano’s cutter?

Allen Barra, Brushbacks and Knockdowns: The Greatest Baseball Debates of Two Centuries (2004)

Purchased for one chapter in which Barra takes aim at baseball’s big lie (that the Yankees have ruined the sport). A few writers have questioned this dogma – once apiece, for variety’s sake. There are some bloggers who see it my way, but Barra is, I believe, the only professional sportswriter to advocate my position on this consistently, and who really understands what a drag the big lie really is:

…you read about a Kansas City Royals fan in a restaurant yelling at Derek Jeter “You’re what’s wrong with baseball!” Derek Jeter is what’s wrong with baseball? That’s enough to make any reasonable person hop on a plane to Kansas City, find that guy, grab him by the collar and yell something like “You ungrateful jerk, you ought to feel privileged to be able to buy a ticket and see him play!”

[this chapter is] first about how the press bought into the line put out by Bud Selig in preparation for … negotiation with the players, and second, how the perception of Yankee dominance that resulted from that propaganda has unfairly tainted perhaps the greatest run of clutch play in baseball history.

Barra then goes on to detail all the “gutsy calls, clutch plays, and thrilling endings” against tough opponents that went into the Yankees’ odds-defying string of championships, and says, in response to the big lie:

… those of us who followed those seasons carefully and now remember them vividly will always know different…. [The Yankees] gave baseball a legacy of heart, grit, and professionalism that baseball could have pointed to with pride, much as the NBA did with the Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls.

Exactly – what should have been celebrated and has to be respected was instead shat upon by envious fans and their various enablers. The rest of Brushbacks and Knockdowns is uneven. There is a chapter nominating Yogi Berra as the greatest “team player” in sports history, which is a good read although I don’t buy the idea. There is also a good one, fairly critical, about Barry Bonds, in which Bill James gets to make a few cogent comments about the steroid issue.

Arnold Hano, A Day in the Bleachers (1954)

The NY Giants-style lettering on the attractive 2004 reprint said “buy me,” and I’m glad I did. Hano’s droll, tense account of Game 1 of the 1954 World Series was one of the most enjoyable baseball reads I had this season. I liked his feel for his team – what it could and couldn’t do – and his observations about the bleacher experience of the 1950s fan. Hano, 34 at the time, projects an air of formality and impatience that is not much in evidence among similarly-aged baseball writers today, where the more popular voice is that of collegiate wise-ass. Nevertheless, this classic exercise in self-referential fandom presaged much of what we love to do now in stuff like blogs and this thing of mine.

Roger Kahn, October Men (2003)

In his account of one of my favorite teams, Kahn managed to unearth some stories I hadn’t heard. October Men features a scary Billy Martin, one who commanded Goose Gossage to bean his former player Billy Sample out of racial animus (Gossage declined). On the other hand, George Steinbrenner comes off as a pretty reasonable guy, just a little excitable. In light of Kahn’s evident delight in his baseball friendships, one has to wonder if he pulled his punches on George and socked it to Martin, who is dead. The tag line of the book is that “four tough guys from Cleveland” were the key to the Yankees’ turn-around (Paul, Rosen, Lemon, and George himself). The players do not come off as particularly tough. The 1978 Yankees are remembered for grit – any comeback team gets that rep. There is another way to think of them, though: talented, over-sensitive prima donnas. Yes, there have been crybaby athletes throughout the history of pro sports, but it is also true that had Bucky Dent and Sparky Lyle quit on Joe Torre’s Yankees the way they did in 1978, they would not have walked away reputations unscathed.

Marissa Moss, Mighty Jackie: The Strike-Out Queen (2004)

This is one of my three-year old daughter’s baseball books. The art is good and she enjoyed it. It recounts a 2 April, 1931 incident: New York Yankees @ Chattanooga Lookouts. With Murder’s Row battering the Lookouts, they bring in 17-year-old lefty Jackie Mitchell to face Babe Ruth. She strikes him out on four pitches, and he goes bananas, heaving the bat to the dugout. She strikes out Gehrig swinging. The book ends there. She then walked Lazzeri, and was promptly removed for the original starting pitcher. Judge Landis voided her contract days later.
Moss, and others, position Mitchell as a serious player, her whiffing Babe and Lou as a real achievement indicative of true talent. She depicts Ruth as genuinely furious to have been struck out by a girl. I find this book flawed on two counts. First, what is the best way to empower girls? Is it to confront them early with an unjust, sexist world, as Moss does, or should we just promote the idea that it is normal for girls to engage in whatever activities they most enjoy? My daughter was a knight for Holloween because she thinks knights are cool. She just did it. We didn’t first read her a book about how one brave girl defies society’s insistence that she can only be a princess.
Second, putting bad history in the service of a good cause is bad for history and ultimately bad for the cause. Mitchell may have been able to pitch a little bit, but striking out Ruth and Gehrig was certainly staged. For one thing, that was Mitchell’s one and only appearance for the Lookouts: unlikely if they’d been using her straight. For another thing, there is a photo of Ruth and Gehrig smiling and towering over the tiny Mitchell. If it’s a pre-game photo, it suggests a publicity stunt is in the offing. If post-game, it casts doubt on the Babe’s supposed anger. Moss’s book crops the photo to omit the smiling Bronx Bombers at her side.

Rob Neyer, Bill James, The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers (2004)

Neyer and James have assembled an index of what every significant big league pitcher threw. As fancy strikes them, they add more or less detail from scouting reports and published accounts. If you look up a specific pitcher, it’s hit or miss. Sometimes, it just says, “1) fastball, 2) curve.” But if you flip around and treat it as pleasure reading rather than strictly a reference work, you stumble across many interesting tidbits and descriptions. The book also has essays; the best one was on the evolution of the pitching arsenal (James). There are also good ones about some near-great pitchers like Billy Pierce (Neyer) and Tony Mullane (James). In what will be the most talked about part of the book, James challenges what has become sabermetric orthodoxy about the danger of high pitch counts. He argues that Baseball Prospectus’s “Pitcher Abuse Points” fail to identify at-risk pitchers, and that throwing a lot of pitches just may not be as bad as we all thought.

Bill Nowlin and Cecilia Tan, eds., The Fenway Project (2004)

In which 64 SABR members take in a 2002 interleague game against the Braves and each writes an essay about a different aspect of the Fenway Park experience. In the first essay, the writer begins by suggesting that while Yankees have titles, they have made no impact on the oral tradition of the game. That’s right – there are no good stories about the Yankees. He closes by saying that at the end of the game, Red Sox Nation files out with one thought on its hive mind: “Yankees suck.” I was willing to put up with a certain amount of anti-Yankee stuff to enjoy a book about Fenway Park, which I like. I just didn’t think it was going to be so witless. Luckily, the opening essay is different in tone than the rest of the book. The authors did a good job coming up with 64 different angles on the game. Some of them are pretty dull, but there are interesting nuggets in there. You find out, for example, what the day is like for the anthem singer (they all lip synch).

Pete Rose, My Prison Without Bars (2004)

Admits he bet on baseball. What about the 15 years of vehement denials? “I just never had the opportunity to tell anybody that was going to help me.”

Alan Schwarz, The Numbers Game (2004)

Schwarz isn’t concerned only with arch-sabermetrics; his history of baseball stats gives us the scoop on how Topps chased Bowman off the map by putting better stats on the backs of the cards. We get the lowdown on the ugly birth of STATS, Inc. amid the wreckage of Project Scoresheet. We get a peek into the desperate world of the Elias Bureau as unimaginative Seymour Siwoff tried to hold off the future. We get Hal Richman and Strat-o-Matic, the rise and fall of the Big Mac. And of course the founding fathers, from Chadwick to James, the strange guys who painstakingly counted the uncounted, better to know baseball. One thing that surprised me is how many postwar baseball stat freaks were also doing RAND-type studies about game theory and bomber flight plans – imagine the Wizards of Armageddon figuring clutch hitting numbers every time their supervisors weren’t looking.

Schwarz’s writing is sometimes too cutesy for my taste (“Chadwick had his own opinions – more than hairs of his chinny, chin, chin, it turned out…”). I liked the analogy of Bill James’s Baked Beans factory to Albert Einstein’s patent office, but Schwarz undercuts his own good line by comparing Sandy Alderson reading Eric Walker to “King reading Gandhi.” Mostly though, Schwarz gets out of the way of a good story. The end of the book holds out the promise of multiple camera angles digitizing the whole field. Coming soon… Total Baseball Awareness.

Richard J. Tofel, A Legend in the Making: The New York Yankees in 1939 (2002)

Finally got down to buying this one, which was mentioned in the 2002 annual as a standing-in-the-book-store-review. 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.

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