Saturday, September 28, 2002

Baseball Book Reviews by Mark Hughson

There are three things in life I enjoy:  reading, writing, and baseball.  Since my life is entirely about self-gratification, I thought it would be beneficial (mostly to me) to read a bunch of baseball books and write some reviews.  Books are not baseball cards, I assure you, yet there is something about looking through those 50 cent crates in the library basement, or passing by a used rack filled with copies of Orel Hershiser’s Out Of The Blue.  Sure, you can go to any book store and look at all those slick, glossy, coffee table (as in, big enough to be a coffee table) hardback anthologies, yet really the fun still lies within the heart (not within the TeenBeat-esque pictures of Derek Jeter).

The Curse Of Rocky Colavito by Terry Pluto

Players, writers/sports journalists, managers, umpires, historians, broadcasters—they’ve all written a baseball book.  But what I’ve rarely seen is, I guess in some sense, the book version of Zisk— that is, a book written by and for baseball fans.  The bleacher rats, the hecklers, the never-say-diers; the warmhearted, the heartless, and the heart broken.  Here we have, succinctly stated by the subtitle—“A loving look at a thirty year slump.”  The team: Cleveland Indians; the years: approximately early ’60s to early ’90s; the curse:  freak injuries, accidents, disease, death, weather, and last but not least, horrible trades.  Cleveland, at one time or another, had Rocky Colavito, Norm Cash, Roger Maris, Tommie Agee, Tommy John, Dennis Eckersley, Joe Carter, and a slew of others on its team or in its farm system, and they were all thrown away for a bunch of duds and a few extra pennies.  Each and every one of them became superstars…after they were traded (actually Rocky, Eck, and Carter all did well with Cleveland but were given the heave for various ridiculous reasons).  Anyway, Pluto is a fan without a doubt, he loves his Indians and the nice-guy-on-hard-times attitude shines through.  Plenty of funny stories (usually unrelated to the curse) and lots of thought provoking “what ifs,” make this an interesting read.  But what really has me sold is the fact that Pluto now has me sold—the Indians are cursed.  The case here is made so strongly I can’t help but believe it. 

I Was Right On Time—My Journey From The Negro Leagues To The Majors by Buck O’Neil

Yes, the same Buck that was in Ken BurnsBaseball.  Yes, the same Buck who played on the legendary Kansas City Monarchs.  The same Buck who scouted and signed Ernie Banks, Lou Brock, Lee Smith, Joe Carter, and Oscar Gamble, among others.  It’s true that Buck was a player (a pretty good one too), yet after reading this it’s clear he is also an enthusiast.  Why can’t he be both?  Before reading this book my knowledge of the Negro Leagues started and ended with Satchel Paige and Rube Foster.  Now, I know.  I realize, recognize, and respect the talent, the work, the adventure, and now more than ever, the meaning of black baseball in the first half of the 20th century.  This is no dissertation mind you, this is like listening to grandpa—and let me clarify grandpa.  Not specifically your blood related grandpa, but the grandpa.  The one who has been around so long and been so loving, sharing, and wise, that everyone just affectionately calls him grandpa.  Buck takes us from his segregated elementary school in Florida, around the country, into the Hall Of Fame (he’s on the Veterans Committee), and back to Florida—where ball parks are named after him.  There are too many stories to tell here, which has been said in many book reviews, but in this case it takes a special meaning, because unlike the oft-repeated tales of the Babe, Mantle, and even Jackie Robinson, these stories would most likely slip through the fingers of our generation if not for Buck, and of course a sharp eye in the library basement.  My recommended book of the season.

Nice Guys Finish Last by Leo Durocher

If you want some stories about baseball, you might as well talk to the guy who’s seen it all.  Was it some uncanny skill?  Was it luck?  Was it just Leo?  The golden age of baseball was filled with amazing teams, zany characters, and historic events; Durocher just happened to be nearby (or in the middle of the mess) while it all happened.  He tells tales of the renowned 1920’s Yankees and his scuffle with Babe Ruth, the antics of the 1930’s Gas House Gang, his days as a manager in Brooklyn and the struggle to keep Jackie Robison in the majors.  He was there when the shot was heard around the world, and when Willie Mays made the most famous catch in baseball.  No umpire was safe, no opposing team could be fully prepared, not even his own upper management could match Leo.  He wasn’t that nice of a guy.  But, as he so accurately describes in this autobiography, baseball is not a gentleman’s game.  The diamond is a battlefield and Leo was a general.  Good read.

The Glory Of Our Times by Lawrence S. Ritter

(Note: who I’m sure was really an editor/compiler, this is really “The Story of Baseball Told By The Men Who Played It”)

These next two books are about as different as night and day.  I’m glad having read both of them, but it came as somewhat of a dual shock to me when I read them back to back.  Keep that in mind.  So,  you want to hear from the old timers eh?  No, I don’t mean Nolan Ryan.  No, not Mickey Mantle, keep going back.  Nope, even before Ty Cobb.  We’re talking about old old timers.  These guys helped invent the game.  These guys were on the field when mitts looked like batting gloves, the fence was a row of trees, and the leagues were just being started.  Apparently, these were good times.  This is a collection of fond memories, when baseball was a way of life, not a salary or a business venture.  If you want stories of the warm hearted, look no further.

Field Of Screams by Richard Scheinin

If you want stories of the heartless, look no further.  This book was written, among other reasons, in response to The Glory Of Our Times—in order to set the record straight.  This is the “Dark Underside Of America’s National Pastime.” (What’s with these books and their subtitles?  Sheesh.)  Baseball was not all smiles, songs, or even sportsmanship.  There was some nasty shit going on back in the day.  I know, I don’t like to think of baseball like it’s hockey either, but truth be told, there were brawls, scandals, and eye-popping violent outbreaks in the game, and this book put them on a highlight reel.  The book makes its point early on, and after three-fourths of the book I was ready for something else.  However, the stories it does tell shines a fuller light on the game.  There was both glory and gore.  That’s baseball.  For those of you who pride yourself as baseball buffs, don’t read one without the other.

Sweet Lou by Lou Piniella

I like Lou.  It’s hard to believe that he was a smooth faced dough boy at one time (though maybe they air brushed his face on the cover).  I like this book for three main reasons.  One)  Though a bit of a wiener in his early days, Lou is a modest guy.  He’s no cocky bastard, and the way that he writes about cocky bastards like Reggie Jackson and George Steinbrenner is amusing.  Actually, no huge dirt is spilled here.  Reggie was just misunderstood.  Two)  This is Lou’s major league life (starting in farm systems in the late 60’s till 1986 when the book was published).  Sure he was named Rookie of the Year and played on the Yankees championship teams of the late ’70s, but it was no dynasty.  It was a humble time, full of ups and downs.  What made Piniella’s ride to the ’77 and ’78 World Series more exciting was the fact that the Yankees didn’t always win.  They tried, failed, worked, struggled, and earned victory…and then they went back to failing.  Real life, people.  3)  I also like this book because a majority of it took place after I was born (1976).  I love those older decades too, but this is something I could relate to more…Don Mattingly’s early years, Lou as the skipper, ahhh sweet childhood… 

Voices Of Baseball—Quotations On The Summer Game compiled and edited by Bob Chieger

This book is 227 pages of one liners—yes, that’s right, a book of all quotes.  Surprisingly, the book does go somewhere.  Weaving its way through every decade, team, dynasty and basement dweller, you get a good feel for the immensity of baseball.  The book has 40 chapters for crying out loud!  (Ok, so the one on coaches and scouts is a page and a half).  Humor abounds overall:  One of George Brett’s quotes: “My problem’s, uh, behind me now.” (Brett following his hemorrhoid surgery during the 1980 World Series.)    Chieger also sneaks in some quotes from writers (not sports writers mind you—John Updike, James Thurber) which truly bring out the mythological transcendence of the spitball.  Too many good ones to list, but I thought I’d throw in some special quotes, ones that will let the reader see a different side to the “Yankee Mystique:”

“Any girl who doesn’t want to fuck can leave now.”

            Babe Ruth, at a party in Detroit, 1928

“What the hell were you doing last night?  Jesus Christ!  You looked like a monkey trying to fuck a football out there!” 

            George Steinbrenner, berating a poor fielder, 1978

The Umpire Strikes Back by Ron Luciano

This is just pure comedy.  After chuckling through a  couple of chapters I was using the line “Who’s your writer?  (Apparently it’s David Fisher).  At first I thought a book like this being successful was just a fluke, but half way through I knew this was the real thing.  Luciano makes more fun of himself than everyone else in the book put together (except maybe Earl Weaver).  Light reading for sure… there’s so much goofing off, on field antics, and tales to spin, Luciano only spends a chapter or two about the life and times of an umpire.  They have no affiliations, they become everyone’s enemy.  The only thing that keeps an umpire from going off the deep end (and some of them did, mind you) is a good mind-set.  Luciano’s mind was set on looking cool, being an entertainer, and possibly making some out/safe calls when he’s paying attention.  Fun read all around.

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