By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Ball Four: The Final Pitch
By Jim Bouton, edited by Leonard Schecter
Bulldog Publishing, 544 pp., $24.95
What's the best baseball book of all time? That's really an argument for the hot stove league. What's the most important baseball book of all time? Hands down, it's Jim Bouton's Ball Four. It was no joke when the New York Public Library put this book on its top 100 of the last century right alongside The Great Gatsby and Lolita. Ball Four has been so thoroughly assimilated that it's easy to forget how revolutionaryand inflammatoryit was at the time of its publication: It's the Citizen Kane of sports literature.
By going public about baseball's feudalism, Bouton changed the course of baseball history, paving the way for the era of free agency that followed a few years later. And by revealing that "ballplayers will, on occasion, take pep pills, get drunk, stay out late, talk dirty, have groupies, and be rude to fans," Ball Four changed the fan-athlete dynamic forever. But at its heart, Ball Four is a baseball story, a funny, honest, and slightly sentimental account of the Seattle Pilots' one and only season, and a raggedy-armed pitcher trying to hang on through just one more summer. "You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball," Bouton writes without irony. "And in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all along." This volume also collects two of the breezy but thoughtful prefaces and postscripts to earlier editions that documented the reaction to the book (Pete Rose to Bouton: "Fuck you, Shakespeare"), Bouton's brief comeback ("Johnny Sain hit it right on the head when he said I wanted to do something nobody had ever done before"), and a where-are-they-now about his Seattle Pilots teammates. (Old tennis-ball-head Steve Hovley "became a plumber, just like any other former Major Leaguer who went to Stanford and read Dostoyevsky in the clubhouse.") Bud Selig should read this latest edition for Bouton's brilliant final postscript, a clearheaded primer on baseball economics. The rest of us can simply get out our hankies as Bouton recalls his daughter Laurie's tragic death, and his bittersweet return to Yankee Stadium. How best to sum up this unlikely classic? If you haven't read Ball Four, there's a gap in your education. If you have, you know why you should read it again. Allen St. John
By George Gmelch
Smithsonian Institution Press, 202 pp., $21.95
Finding out that Inside Pitch is an anthropological study of professional baseball players, one might expect a certain kind of book ("Aha! So Armando Benitez and Mel Rojas are behavioral doubles!"). Instead, this trim tome turns out to be a nuts-and-bolts primer on the day-to-day lives of players as they make their way through baseball's farm system and into careers as Major Leaguers.
Gmelch, who spent four years in the Detroit Tiger organization in the mid 1960s, interviewed roughly a hundred players, coaches, managers, and scouts at every level of play, from raw rookie-league prospects through A, Double A, and Triple A players, and on to grizzled Major League veterans and even recent retirees. Judiciously using their observations, he gives the reader a healthily unglamorized, realistic sense of the mostly long, tedious climb that it takes to make it all the way to become one of the 750 players who can call themselves Major Leaguers in any given year.
Still, the most interesting parts of the book come when Gmelch contrasts his own experiences 30-odd years ago with the money, conditions, and attitudes found in baseball today. He points out that the average Major League salary in 1967 was $19,000basically one-eightieth of the $1.5 million it is today. He recalls his first day with the Tigers' Carolina League affiliate, when he asked about equipmentand was pointed toward a box of used jocks. He also touches (albeit too briefly) on issues of racism he witnessed during his playing days. Gmelch apparently was cast off by the Tigers not so much for his numbers but for his pen, due to an article he'd written for a California newspaper about his belief that the chief of police in the North Carolina town he was playing in was a KKK member. "I was dismissed from the road trip we were on because there was a threatened libel suit," he recalls. "When I was finally reactivated a week later, I was moved down in the lineup from fourth to eighth, and the next day I was released." Must have been too many Ks. Billy Altman
The Duke of Havana
By Steve Fainaru and Ray Sánchez
Villard Books, 338 pp., $24.95
Rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard after his defection from Cuba went awry, Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez apparently tried using his family name to persuade the Americans not to return him to Havana. As El Duque explained that his brother was 1997 World Series MVP Livan Hernandez, the boarding officer, one Allen Bandrowsky of Cleveland, Ohio, said to the translator, "Oh, yeah? Tell him I'm an Indians fan. He's not getting any sympathy from me."
That's one of the funniest anecdotes in this great big mess of a book, which is alternately engaging, complex, and frustrating.