Hits, errors, wishful thinking, dashed dreams, nice people finishing last—baseball books are just like the game itself. Don’t judge the following select list of recent books only by their covers (or their authors). But if you do, you’ll be both delighted and disappointed. As we said, just like the game.
A Pitcher’s Story: Innings With David Cone
By Roger Angell
Warner Books, 290 pp., $24.95
A couple of years ago this must have seemed like a great idea: baseball’s prose laureate and baseball’s most articulate player hooking up. No one could foresee that David Cone was about to take a 4-14 nosedive and jeopardize his fast-fading Hall of Fame chances; even less could they know that he’d try one more hugely improbable comeback and that it would actually show signs of succeeding. As it stands, A Pitcher’s Story doesn’t quite work on any level. Instead of a clear sense of both voices, we get a watered-down sound of both.
Part of the problem, of course, must be written off to the unholy funk in which Cone spent much of the season; it’s tough to take time out to sum up your thoughts in a season where your summed-up thoughts are something like “I wonder if I’m washed up?” So Angell often has the unpleasant task of trying to force answers out of Cone, or force meaning into him. Or as Angell phrases it when Cone is banished to the purgatory for ailing starters called the bullpen, “Instead of an inside look at a wizardly old master at his late last best, this was going to be Merlin falling headlong down the palace stairs, the pointy hat airborne and the wand clattering.” Problem is, it isn’t just Cone’s wand we hear clattering. Seemingly unable to find a sharp hook for the book, Angell falls back to the old device of finding two David Cones, one the multi-millionaire ballplayer and the other—surprise—a humble (at heart) guy who really can’t believe, deep down, that anyone who grew up in the Midwest loving baseball could be paid so much money for playing it. “What nobody tells you is how to handle all that. How do you do that without embarrassment?” Well, Dave, you just imagine how much better off you are now than before you had “all that” and just try to do the best you can.
Trust me, it isn’t that you’ll have trouble believing that, no matter what you thought of Cone when he was in a Mets or Yankees uniform. The problem is that once you do, you find less to interest you about David Cone. Like so many other quirky, intelligent ballplayers, Cone gets less interesting the more we know “the real” him. The real Cone, the vulnerable, insecure guy, is too much like us. The tough, shrewd, working-class intellectual Irish punk he constructed around himself was lots more interesting than the “real” David Cone, and Angell is too honest to pretend otherwise. Myself, I wanted to know more about that “Weird Sex Act in Bullpen” (to quote the New York Post‘s headline), but I guess they don’t get a New Yorker editor for that kind of thing. —Allen Barra
Home Run: The Best Writing About Baseball’s Most Exciting Moment
Edited by George Plimpton
Harvest, 278 pp., $13
Notwithstanding Joyce Carol Oates’s relentless efforts on behalf of boxing, baseball remains the game of choice for grad-schooled pencil necks who can’t take a sport seriously until it’s been canonized in The New Yorker or on PBS (thank you, Roger; thank you, Ken). That crowd is the apparent target demographic for this book devoted to the socio-cultural import of the home run, compiled by eternal pencil neck George Plimpton and featuring writers more readily associated with Harper’s than with Sports Illustrated. I mean, seriously, does anyone need to hear John Updike’s take on baseball? Or Garrison Keillor’s? Or Gregory Corso’s? Honey, did you renew my New York Review of Books subscription?
Plimpton, a man as in love with his own work as the sports world has ever seen, sets the pretentiously highbrow tone in his intro and first chapter, tossing off annoying little asides in French and referring to “my participatory journalism stints” (must’ve been a typo—they were stunts, not stints). Unfortunately, he could have used a fact checker (Dave Kingman played for four different teams in 1977, not 1972, and retired in 1986, not 1979), not to mention a baseball-fluent copy editor (it’s a “high fastball,” not a “high, fast ball”).
The 15 or so essays that follow include a few beauties, most notably Robert Peterson’s profile of Negro Leagues star Josh Gibson and a nice excerpt from Bernard Malamud’s immortal The Natural (if you’ve seen the movie more recently than you’ve read the book, you owe it to yourself to revisit the text). But the overarching feel is one of intellectual and literary snootiness, as if to say, “Look, we’ve got real writers here—you don’t even have to hide this book under your copy of Lingua Franca when you read it on the subway.” The only surprise is that there’s no contribution from Norman Mailer—maybe he was busy doing a boxing story with Oates. —Paul Lukas
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 revolutionary—and inflammatory—it 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 $19,000—basically 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 equipment—and 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.
At its best, the book offers fascinating details about El Duque’s family life, his banishment from Cuban baseball, even the origins of the rickety-raft defection myth. There’s a great deal about the sneaky machinations of Joe Cubas, the agent whose tremendous influence puts David Falk to shame.
But at its worst, especially when discussing Cuba itself, the book sometimes veers into Tom Clancy-esque oversimplification. You know, where those supporting Castro or wanting to remain in their homeland are filled with “revolutionary fervor,” where schoolchildren are “indoctrinated,” and a ballplayer who speaks up for the revolution must be “brainwashed.”
Buried in its many pages is a jarring side story. We learn that it was coauthor Steve Fainaru, then the Boston Globe‘s Mexico City bureau chief, who personally got word to Joe Cubas that El Duque, long coveted, was ready to defect.
For all we know, the authors’ emotional attachment to Hernandez helped add a richness to their writing. It certainly gave them unprecedented access to El Duque and his pals.
But it’s hard not to wonder: Would a U.S. journalist be able to maintain such a stellar reputation, pen a well-received book, and nab another top job (Fainaru is now an investigative reporter with the Washington Post) if he had confessed clandestine actions on behalf of a Communist? Someone chock-full of, say, revolutionary fervor? —Joanna Cagan
Keep Your Eye on the Ball: Curve Balls, Knuckleballs, and the Fallacies of Baseball
By Robert G. Watts and A. Terry Bahill
W.H. Freeman, 258 pp., $14.95
When it comes to the field of applied physics, you’d have to look long and hard to find better practitioners than Barry Bonds and Pedro Martinez. That’s what this revised edition of Keep Your Eye on the Ball, written by two engineering professors, argues. Wade through—or flip past—the charts and equations, and this book will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about why a curve curves, why a knuckleball (or a spitball) darts, and whether or not a rising fastball really does rise. The authors make even more provocative observations about the little-understood science of hitting. They argue, for example, that corked bats—and even aluminum ones—wouldn’t provide an advantage to Major League hitters, but they claim that by tinkering with a bat’s center of mass, engineers could build a better, and still legal, Louisville Slugger. To perform the research that gave this book its title, the authors built a charmingly Rube Goldbergian device to track a player’s eye movements. The results? At the point of impact, a baseball is moving more than three times faster than even the fastest human eye can track. Further, they posit tests that might be able to reveal whether a 17-year-old high school phenom has the neurological hardwiring to be able to hit Major League pitchers the way he now roughs up his fellow high schoolers. “[Major Leaguers] are not paid a million dollars for their six-month job because of their bodies,” the authors conclude. “It is because of their brains. The players that are paid the most have the best brains; they can predict the flight of the ball better than mere mortals can.” Like Yogi said, 90 percent of baseball is half mental. —Allen St. John
Feeding the Green Monster
By Rob Neyer
Rob Neyer is a lucky man. He falls in love fast and has the means to pursue his obsessions. After witnessing his first games in Fenway Park late in 1999, ESPN.com’s resident stathead decided he must spend an entire season there and tell the world about what he discovered. Despite having what he calls “the greatest job in the world,” Neyer fails to share his joyful experience in this online diary of the 2000 season.
Perhaps that’s because Neyer is not really having fun. He spends April whining about the weather. Then he finds he can’t simply replace the Royals, his first love, with the Red Sox. With the book intended as an exploration of a fan’s life, the author’s emotional distance is self-defeating. As a columnist, Neyer works best as a counterpuncher, challenging accepted truths, but those skills are wasted when he is his own subject. And he’s too lazy a reporter to find enough passionate voices to replace his own.
Even worse, Neyer pinch-hits for girlfriend Maya, a Sox diehard who lives in Boston, with Kristien, who resides in Seattle and wouldn’t know Babe Ruth from Bucky Dent. By early August, Neyer admits that he doesn’t even want to be in Boston when the Sox are on the road. The author has a new obsession, and for the last third of the book, Neyer is going through the motions.
The book’s best moments happen between games at Fenway. Highlights include a few hours chasing batting practice homers and an overnight stay in the old ballpark. Another good scene is a game at Safeco with his girlfriend’s young son. And as baseball’s principals never tire of squeezing every last buck out of fans and taxpayers, Neyer’s angry defense of Fenway from local interests is welcome. Too bad he never explores whether he could offer his services to the efforts of Save Fenway Park to preserve the old ballpark he claims to loves so much. —Dean Chadwin