Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Zisk Classic Book Corner by Mark Hughson

Summer of ’49 by David HalberstamWhen you are writing a book solely about two teams (Yanks and Sox) during a single season of baseball, you can certainly afford to go in depth about the teams and go on at length about the players. But would you really want to? The book itself follows a fairly linear path, but isn’t all that captivating a story, since we already know the outcome. While Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams get the most pages and the most hero worship, Halberstam goes deep into the lineup, giving us the entire roster for both teams, and the forgotten (or just overshadowed) players like Bobby Doerr, Chuck Stobbs, Ellis Kinder, and Birdie Tebbetts get highlighted as solid teammates, exceptional athletes, or at least interesting characters. Ted and Joe were amazing men, but they didn’t make or maintain the old dynasties single-handedly. Overall there’s a lot to learn but Halberstam doesn’t give us a lot to ponder—he’s just relaying the facts (the book is indeed well researched) right off the timeline. Thankfully his style is warm and nostalgic, so the book definitely falls into the pleasure-read category. If you’re into Williams and DiMaggio this book is up your alley; personally my favorite parts were about the stingy bastard George Weiss, local restaurant owner and confidant, Toots Shor, and of course the voice of baseball, Mel Allen. Apparently it was Allen’s idea to put a camera in the outfield giving us the now standard perspective that’s seen in all ball games on TV.

Halberstam is a respected author and this book sold well when first published in 1989, but while the book “celebrates a simpler America” it’s also a relatively simple book. If you’re looking for a book with dirt in its cleats then move on.

White Rat by Whitey Herzog with Kevin Horrigan
Whoever thought using Herzog’s nickname for a book title should have been fired on the spot. Herzog casts a pretty favorable light on himself (the book was published in 1987, during his moment in the sun) in this autobiography, and while one may chuckle at his claims of being baseball’s best talent scout, manager, coach, or whatever position he once held during his tenure in baseball, the book does have some good qualities. The first comes right at the beginning, where Herzog breaks down a “day in the life” of a manager, the early start, the meetings with players and press, handing in the lineup card—everything. It’s a pretty neat look at all the work that’s done in a day, since all we see on TV is an old dude sitting in the dugout with his arms folded. The next best part of the book happens at the very end. Herzog decides to pull no punches and talks pretty frankly about cocaine use, inflated salaries, and the politics of baseball. He names some names, but it’s nothing that’s not common knowledge these days. Still, it’s cool to see someone rant about these things rather than try to sweep it under the America’s Pastime rug. Otherwise, White Rat goes through the motions of your typical baseball book (the bad years, the rebuild years, that one great year), and is neither impressive nor offensive to the typical baseball lit fan. That one great year the Cardinals had (1982) was cool though: with guys like Lonnie Smith, Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee, Keith Hernandez, and Tom Herr becoming World Series champions, Herzog makes a pretty strong case for having one of, if not the best, small ball teams in baseball history. He tried to repeat the formula a few years later with some of the same guys as well as Vince Coleman and Andy Van Slyke, but alas fate had other plans. Final tally—pretty good read, horrible title!

Mark Hughson lives in Syracuse, NY and enjoys baseball. His knowledge of the game is comprised entirely from 1980s paperback books he purchases at the local library for 50 cents.

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