Apparently I am in the minority in my indifference to Major League Baseball’s annual All Star extravaganza (as well as the NBA and NFL versions). The players like it, for obvious reasons. And the fans, apparently enjoy this nearly meaningless contrivance (meaningless, except for the recent adoption of the winner’s league receiving home court advantage in the National Tournament) with the forgettable Home Run Derby and the Futures game added to the festivities.
It was hyperbole when Jacque Barzun pegged baseball, America’s once and past national pastime. as the useful codex to understanding the USA’s culture and society. Today with the apparent disintegration of its monoculture, there are not many truisms to be uttered about baseball’s place in our society. And frankly except for the most partisan devotees it hardly matters. One thing that does seem true is George Plimpton’s Small Ball Rule — the smaller the ball, the better the writing attached to the sport (though I am not aware of any books on ping pong). And, of course, baseball has validated Plimpton’s view.
As a regular practice I have ,for the past few years, been previewing books on baseball at the Daily Beast.* And as there are always more after my report in April, I amend that list in mid summer:
Pitching Around Fidel: A Journey into the Heart of Cuban Sports by S. L. Price
No doubt the recent, long overdue thaw between Uncle Sam and ‘the Triumphant Cuban Revolution’ makes any information coming out of Cuba especially newsworthy (especially after over 50 years of misrepresentation and belligerence coming from the USA.) Cuban baseball is, of course, one area where all Americans (from the North and the South)can share a common pleasure. Sports Illustrated writer Price’s fine reportage—part travelogue, part social commentary, and part expose of Cuba’s athletes struggles— informs both on the game of beisbol and the politics and culture which surround it. Carl Hiassen blurbs,
…Offers a rare and provocative tour of the world’s most remarkable sports culture. It’s an unforgettable story of supremely gifted athletes, the utter madness of politics, and the scent of big money across the se
Price doesn’t limit himself to baseball and among other stories he reports on attending the great Cuban boxing champion Teofilo Stevenson’s 46th birthday party (Stevenson has since passed on to the great Gym in the Sk. The interview he records is a riveting snapshot of the the complicated Olympic champion.
The Game Must Go On: Hank Greenberg, Pete Gray, and the Great Days of Baseball on the Home Front in WWII by John Klima
Given the large amounts of money involved it takes a lot to delay and/or cancel the schedules of professional professional sports. In my lifetime I count three instances, labor issues, an earthquake and a terrorist attack. After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the impending world wide war canceling the 1942 MLB season was considered and for morale issues the season was played. But as is well-documented players like the great Hebraic slugger, Hank Greenberg and Ted Williams volunteered to serve in the armed forces. John Klima focuses on baseball’s history from 1941 to 1945 chronicling not only the stories of major leaguers who served but also replacement players like Pete Gray, a one-armed outfielder.
The war years have often been characterized as a void in time where nothing significant happened. In fact, the war years featured some great teams, great races, great players and great stories and sparked a transformation that made the game modern. But in order to show this, I had to find a way to tell the story in a way that hadn’t been done before. The solution was on the field itself, in the story of three very distinct personalities – Hank Greenberg, Pete Gray and Billy Southworth Jr. All have wartime stories that reflected the journeys of so many other lives during the war. These human stories allowed me to show the interaction between the greater events of the war, how the ballplayers participated in the war and how the conflict shaped their lives, and how the war changed the game.
Crack of the Bat: A History of Baseball on the Radio by James R. Walker
As a youth I was as much inclined to listen to a baseball game on the radio as watch on tv (in fact, watching a game frequently meant doing other things as well—the early seeds of multi-tasking). Part of that medium’s charm, besides the colorful and frequently informative announcers was that the sounds of the ball park came alive. Even today, when I am spectating a ball game, the sound of the crack of the bat, the ball smacking a glove, the roar of the crowd, the bellowing of the home plate umps add to pleasure of the game.
James Walker’s history harkens back to a time when radio was a useful medium, sans masturbatory sports talk shows and right wing carny barkers featuring men who actually knew whereof they spoke—like Red Barber, Vin Scully, Harry Caray, Ernie Harwell,and Bob Uecker,Mel Allen, Jack Brickhouse,Jack Buck
and Joe Garagiola. This account includes the television and Internet phases, when radio adjusted to remain relevant(now with mobile devices streaming video,one can only wonder how long baseball will be part of radio’s menu)
Pudge: The Biography of Carlton Fisk by Doug Wilson
I wouldn’t think I need to tell you who Carlton Fisk ( also known as the ‘human rain delay’ for his, uh, deliberate approach to batting) is. This year Red Sox fans are being treated to two useful biographies of their recent Hall of Famers—one of Pedro Martinez and this one on Pudge, “…a leader who followed a strict code and played with fierce determination.”
The Set-Up Men: Race, Culture and Resistance in Black Baseball by Sarah L. Trembanis
From the publisher
This book is an examination of cultural resistance to segregation in the world of black baseball through an analysis of editorial art, folktales, nicknames, “manhood” and the art of clowning. African Americans worked to dismantle Jim Crow through the creation of a cultural counter-narrative that centered on baseball and the Negro Leagues that celebrated black achievement and that highlighted the contradictions and fallacies of white supremacy in the first half of the twentieth century.
Big Sam Thompson: Baseball’s Greatest Clutch Hitter by Roy Kerr
As we learn year after year the long history of baseball remains rife with untold stories as is evident by this account of Sam Thompson (1860-1922) who was a five skills player before the term was invented. Kerr charts Thomspon’s childhood from rural Danville, Indiana, to Detroit where his post baseball career was spent as a U.S. deputy marshal. One of the greatest players in baseball’s long and storied history—he batted .331, was second among 19th century players in home runs, and ranks first all-time in RBI per game (.923) and in his prime, he averaged 25 steals a season.
The Dad Report: Fathers, Sons, and Baseball Families by Kevin Cook
Almost two hundred father-son pairs have played in the big leagues. Aaron Boone followed his grandfather Bob, father Ray, and brother Bret to the majors. And of course there was Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey. Major Leaguers Dan Haren, Buddy Bell and Ike Davis report on their own view of sharing baseball with their children. And as the template for his survey sportswriter Kevin Cook recalls he and his father, a minor-league pitcher, having nightly conversations from road, which they called “the Dad Report ” and follows with poignant stories in which fathers and sons share the game.The lesson here is, of course, that the way fathers and sons talk baseball is a way of talking about everything—about life.
The Grind: Inside Baseball’s Endless Season by Barry Svrluga
The 162-game Major League Baseball schedule(and a preseason that begins in February and post season that ends in late October is sports longest season. Washington Post baseball writer Barry Svrluga observes,“There is no sport with an everydayness, a drum-drum-drum beat like baseball,” Ballplayers call this the Grind and Svrluga wrote a series about how it affects people connected to the game.That series, with previously unpublished material and embellished is anthologized here. The Wife, The Scout, The Starter and others exhibit the effects of the long slog from April’s opening day to the season’s finale in late September.
Marvin Miller, Baseball Revolutionary by Robert F Burk
To say that labor lawyer Marvin Miller changed major league baseball and the business of sport is faint comment on his contributions—there is a substantial undercurrent that may one day gain well deserved Hall of Fame status for him. In taking over the feeble Major League Baseball Players Association he secured decent workplace conditions, a pension system, outside mediation of player grievances and salary disputes, a system of profit sharing, and the dismantling of the reserve clause which led to free agency. All of which paved the way for the unionization of US professional sports —which you may or may not view as a good thing. Personally, I see this newly gained power for athletes preferable to the former plantations which competed for fan dollars. Now if someone would finally put down that corrupt establishment that is known as the NCAA…
Molina: The Story of the Father Who Raised an Unlikely Baseball Dynasty by Bengie Molina and Joan Ryan
It has not escaped my attention that the ranks of Major League catchers are filled mostly by Latino players, none more prominent then St Louis Cardinals backstop, six-time All-Star Yadier Molina. With brothers Bengie and Jose, the Molinas are the most successful siblings since the DiMaggios, garnering six World Series championships between them. Bengie’s memoir is a bittersweet rags to riches tale and emotional tribute to the family’s patriarch.
Joe Black: More than a Dodger by Martha Jo Black and Chuck Schoffner
Despite segregation, verbal harassment, and death threats, Joe Black worked his way up through the Negro Leagues and the Cuban Winter Leagues, voted National League Rookie of the Year in 1952 as well as becoming the first African American pitcher to win a World Series game. In his post baseball life Black became the first African American vice president of a transportation corporation when he went to work for Greyhound. This is first-ever biography of Joe Black, written by his daughter telling the feel good story of a baseball great who broke through the color line.