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Baseball Book Recommendations

Today I’ll be reviewing four books out of the many I’ve received this year. Three I’d say would make good holiday gifts, while the last one is more of a book one should read for yourself.

The Greatest Game: The Yankees, the Red Sox, and the Playoff of ’78
by Richard Bradley

There are some classic legends and tales that can be told over and over again in many different ways, and even though we know how they end, each telling is just as captivating. The Christmas story, the sinking of the Titanic, the Odyssey… and the story of how the Yankees and Red Sox did battle on that fateful October day in 1978.

Bradley is a fluid and captivating writer who has researched all the interesting backstories and the intriguing characters (like managers Don Zimmer and Billy Martin), and retells not only the events of the game, but also how the significance of the game fit in a highly turbulent era for baseball and the country. Free agency, race issues, changes in the media, all created a unique atmosphere that only increased the place of the game in the historical context. He brings in elements of each team’s history, both in relation to each other as rivals and each as a sociological force in their home city.

Let’s not forget that it’s fun to read about the game, too. Bradley recreates key moments with great clarity. The description of Mike Torrez throwing the first pitch to Mickey Rivers comes on the 11th page of the chapter on the “Top of the First.” A sample:

Rivers was an unconventional leadoff hitter in one way: in 555 at-bats that season he had walked just 27 times. He… loved to swing at first-pitch fastballs. In the first game of a late September series the year before against the Red Sox, Rivers had lined three hits on first pitches. The next night, Red Sox pitcher Reggie Cleveland had begun the bottom of the first by nailing Rivers in the ribs. The game was in the Bronx, and as Yankee fans began hurling beer and other unpleasantries in Cleveland’s direction, Carlton Fisk had trotted to the mound to ensure that his pitcher wasn’t rattled. “Let’s see the little bastard try to hit that first pitch,” Cleveland had told Fisk.

As third baseman Jack Brohamer moved two steps in on the infield grass in case Rivers should bunt, Torrez starting with a breaking pitch, thinking that Rivers would guess fastball and swing over the pitch. But Rivers took it low, for a ball.

“The Greatest Game” is a nice-looking hardcover and would make an excellent gift for any baseball fan who wants to re-live the intensity of that late-70s era. If you got them “The Bronx is Burning” (book or DVD) last year, this is your follow-up gift. The hardcover is still available from Amazon
and if you are low on cash, there is also a paperback editionwith a less dignified cover and the more lurid subtitle of The Greatest Game: The Day that Bucky, Yaz, Reggie, Pudge, and Company Played the Most Memorable Game in Baseball’s Most Intense Rivalry.

It Takes More Than Balls: The Savvy Girls’ Guide to Understanding and Enjoying Baseball
by Deidre Silva and Jackie Koney

This is for the baseball fans on your list who are just catching fire with their enthusiasm for the game. I would say it’s mostly for the female fans, because some guys would take offense at any book which purports to tell them the stuff they were supposed to learn by osmosis magically through the Y-chromosome just from hanging out in sports bars. But I will tell you, from hanging around in those selfsame bars, that a lot of guys don’t know the difference between a forkball and a split-finger fastball, nor that the foul pole is fair territory, nor why it is that after a manager calls for an intentional walk, he usually pulls that pitcher (instead of letting the next guy do it). I know these things because I’m a relentless student of the game, but The Savvy Girls have it all spelled out for you in their fun and informative book.

(By the way, if you have a male friend you think needs a book like this and he’d be offending by the implied attack on his masculinity that a “girl’s book” might bring, I suggest Zack Hemple’s Watching Baseball Smarter, which came out around the same time, and covers much the same territory as the Savvy Girls’ book.)

The Savvy Girls cover stats, history, game strategy, and just about everything else you can think of and they make it all entertaining to read, too, with anecdotes and examples.

A sample:

Sometimes successfully managing a team means holding your tongue. In 1987, when the oft-vocal Lou Piniella was managing the Yankees… New York was playing in Los Angeles and leading the game, 1-0. Pitching the game were two starters known for their craftiness and trickery, Tommy John for the Yankees and Don Sutton for the Angels. … Television cameras showed Sutton in the Angels’ dugout taking sandpaper out of his pocket. … [Steinbrenner] was incensed to see [obvious evidence of cheating]. He called Piniella to ask what the manager intended to do about Sutton “doctoring” the ball. Referring to the fact that the Yankees were winning, Piniella told his boss he wasn’t planning on busting Sutton…. “What it means, George,” Piniella said, “is that our guy is cheating better than their guy.”

Points off, girls, for saying the game was in Los Angeles, when the Angels have played in Anaheim since 1966, but you won’t find many errors in this book. (Buy it from Amazon.)

The Spitball Knuckleball Book
by Tom E. Mahl

This is a “coffee table” book that arrived in the mail recently, from a small publisher called Trick Pitch Press. It’s a lovely piece of work, possibly a labor of love, that details the history of baseball’s two most infamous pitches and the men who have thrown them. Biographies of the pitchers are divided into “The Legals,” (Eddie Cicotte, Urban Shocker, et. al.) the “Great Illegals,” (Gaylord Perry, Don Drysdale), “The Dry Spitter–The Knucklecurve” (Burt Hooton, Freddie Fitzsimmons), The Knuckleball (Hoyt Wilhelm, Jim Bouton, Tim Wakefield…). The biographies are copiously illustrated, with many, many photos of the various pitchers’ grips. An extensive section on how to throw the trick pitches, especially the knucklecurve, is included.

Author Mahl spent four years researching the book, and by all appearances self-published the book. (Buy it here.) That alone makes it a unique gift, as it doesn’t appear to be widely available in bookstores.

The book is not perfect. It needed a professional proofreader–for example, Pedro Ramos is listed in the caption on his bio as “Padro Ramos,” but even world renowned Sports Illustrated photographer Ron Modra’s book has caption misspellings in it (“Cal Rikpin” “Raphael Palmeiro”) so one cannot really say that the quality is lower on this book than on what one finds from the big presses. They also have amateur editing mistakes, like
Ramos played for a secession of awful Washington Senators teams in the late ’50s.” A good editor would have changed that mistake from “secession” to “succession.” But again, these kinds of mistakes are actually becoming all too common in publishing as a whole, as bigger presses cut corners.

Bash Brothers: A Legacy Subpoenaed
by Dale Tafoya

This is a book that was also in need of one of those copyeditors. Tafoya tries to be as colorful a writer as his brash subjects, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, but one gets the impression the book was written quickly and edited even more quickly. The result is dumb copyediting mistakes like the word “fanfare” appearing as “fan fare” and plain bad word usage like in this description of the rough-and-tumble playing and living conditions faced by McGwire in Dominican Winter baseball: “The luxuries and amenities he enjoyed in American eluded him.” Elude is a synonym for escape or dodge. The amenities ran away from him? I don’t think so.

The fact that there is a weak or shoddy sentence like this on nearly every page almost caused me to give up on this book. I started reading it only to put it down again many many times. But eventually it won me over as an important addition to the canon of baseball history. I wouldn’t give this one as a gift, because I wouldn’t be able to do it without issuing an apology for the seeming lack of editing, but I will recommend it to anyone trying to come to grips with “the steroid thing” themselves.

Every fan has to make their own decision where they stand on steroids, but no matter how you feel, you should be informed. It’s amazing how much information about what went on in the 1980s and early 1990s is already seemingly forgotten by commentators and columnists on the issue. The story of Canseco’s meteoric rise as a star in Oakland, his struggles in the minors and later his run-ins with the police, McGwire arriving on his heels in Oakland and the entire “Bash Brothers” phenomenon is all fascinating reading, and more importantly, quite relevant to all that is still going on with steroids and other performance enhancing drugs in MLB today.

Tafoya has done what seems to be fairly exhaustive research and interviews, and the book presents a fairly meaty picture of a tumultuous time in baseball that is already being shoved by some into the mists of forgotten history. Some of the facts are intriguing, like the A’s were one of the first teams to employ a conditioning coach who forced the players through stretching drills; now all teams do so. Others are ironic: the A’s 1986 Media Guide featured a photo of Canseco and the headline “The Natural.” Thomas Boswell called Canseco “the most conspicuous example of a player who has made himself great with steroids” on national television in 1988–twenty years ago. Tafoya’s book will be an incredible resource for historians and writers 20 and 50 years down the road who are still trying to make sense of it all. It is, in a lot of ways, a very raw resource, only one step removed from the transcripts and clippings that formed the basis of the research. So the bad word usage and the weak sentence construction in the end come off as almost forgivable for me, the way spots and graininess are in old movie footage. It annoys me that it didn’t receive the editing polish it should have, but I’m glad to have it on my reference shelf. (Buy it from Amazon.)

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  1. […] Legacy Subpoenaed” — which I reviewed here on “Why I Like Baseball” back on December 14th, 2008. The book reminds readers of a lot of very significant facts about the early days of the Steroid […]

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