Sunday, April 3rd, 2016
I have my ticket for the April 13 night game against Cincinnati. It is our second home game this season. My son will join me for the game assuming his job doesn’t interfere. With only a few days to go, I am really jones-ing to be back at the ball park.
I bought the Rivals Package of six games. It includes five games against Central Division teams and one game against the White Sox. My seats are in the field boxes outside third base. I moved down from the center upper deck where I have been the past few seasons.
The package fits my schedule and gets me into the ball park at good intervals during the season. Plus, if the past is a predictor, then I will make it to three or four more games outside the package with friends and work colleagues as the season progresses.
Like all of us, I have been following spring training here on View from the Bleachers as well as in other media. I like what I see and look forward to an entertaining season. But this year, while waiting for spring to end and the season to begin, I found myself reading baseball books. I did not plan this with any purpose, but in the past few weeks I have read: George Will’s A NICE LITTLE PLACE ON THE NORTHSIDE, Carrie Muskat’s FROM BANKS TO SANDBERG TO GRACE, and Harper Scott’s science fiction fantasy HOW I HELPED THE CHICAGO CUBS (FINALLY) WIN THE WORLD SERIES.
These books put me in the right frame of mind for what is guaranteed to be a fascinating, and possibly historic, season for the Cubs. I suppose that means that my personal spring training this year has been reading baseball books. It also seems like a good time to write about my favorite baseball books. So here we go. Excluding reference books, my three favorite baseball books are, in order:
BALL FOUR by Jim Bouton
Jim Bouton had been a talented young right-handed pitcher for the Yankees in the early 60s. He enjoyed two sterling seasons as a starter in New York’s rotation in ’63 and ’64. He is probably best known for winning two games for New York in the ’64 World Series against the Cardinals. Although the Yanks lost the Series that year, Bouton performed well and received much acclaim for winning both of his games and the second one mostly on guts without his best stuff. But he flamed out badly the next season and by the end of the decade, he had lost his fastball completely and was trying to reinvent himself as a knuckleballer.
In 1969, he found himself on the Seattle Pilots during their one year of existence in the Major Leagues. (They became the Brewers the next season.) He kept a diary of the season and that diary, interweaved with many entertaining stories from his time on the Yankees, became BALL FOUR.
BALL FOUR was controversial from the start. Bouton was a free thinker in an era where baseball (and sport generally) was still dominated by authoritarian managers and coaches, who considered anyone not of a like mind to be a malcontent. Bouton made little effort in his book to hide that he was bitter that his pitching career had gone badly after his magical seasons in ’63 and ’64. In particular, his depictions of Joe Schultz and Sal Maglie, his Seattle manager and pitching coach respectively, are unsparing and savagely sarcastic. Schultz and Maglie were, to put it mildly, skeptical of Bouton and his theories on the knuckleball.
But the part of the book that drew the most criticism was Bouton’s reminiscences of Mickey Mantle and his drinking, a part of Mantle’s life that was largely unknown to the public. Bouton’s stories are kind to Mantle (and drinking buddy Whitey Ford) who Bouton clearly looked up to. These stories are genuinely funny and are recounted in the book purely for the humor. But they struck a raw nerve inside baseball and Bouton was attacked by then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who tried to discredit BALL FOUR. Bouton refused to recant any part of what he had written and for a long while was treated as a pariah by the Yankees.
BALL FOUR marked a turning point in baseball writing. It inspired many insipid copycat books. For an example of an especially bad one, you might want to read Joe Pepitone’s JOE, YOU COULDA MADE US PROUD. Pepitone’s story is tragic in a wholly self-inflicted way. But the writing is manipulative and the execution lacks the originality and humor of Bouton. BALL FOUR also inspired a TV sitcom on CBS in which Bouton was cast as the lead. The show was cancelled mercifully after only a few episodes.
I loved BALL FOUR when I first read it back in the early 70s and I still love it today. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.
MONEYBALL by Michael Lewis
MONEYBALL is Lewis’ tour de force on the travails of Billy Beane and his Oakland A’s, a small market team seeking to compete against much richer franchises that seemed to dominate the standings in the American League year after year. Beane found a secret weapon in sabrmetrics which he used to replace old-school baseball scouting methods in order to draft and trade for players who were less expensive, but productive enough to allow the A’s to make the play-offs in 2003 and 2004 with a pay roll that was about one third of the Yankee’s.
Beane’s switch from old-fashioned scouting-based player evaluation to analytics-based evaluation was revolutionary and makes for a fascinating story. MONEYBALL addresses baseball on the field and in the front office with sophistication. The movie based on the book is excellent too. I suspect that most View from the Bleachers followers have either read the book or seen the movie or both.
MEN AT WORK by George Will
I meant to read MEN AT WORK 20 years ago, but got around to it only recently. It is excellent notwithstanding that it shows a tiny bit of age. Will is a conservative pundit of great influence today. But back when this book was written in the late 80s, he was widely regarded as the most influential journalist in America. Political journalism then was still a dignified craft. It caught me by surprise when Will published a major baseball book in 1990.
Will’s main theme is that baseball players are intelligent and thoughtful about their craft. According to Will, success in baseball is not just a matter of athletic talent. It requires committed and patient study to master the craft of baseball.
He organizes his book into sections corresponding to the principal activities of baseball: managing, pitching, fielding and hitting. His archetype for each is: manager Tony La Russa, pitcher Orel Hershiser, shortstop Cal Ripken and hitter extraordinaire Tony Gwynn. Will spent hundreds of hours interviewing each in order to write MEN AT WORK. Will also includes a good deal of baseball history, baseball statistics and wonderful anecdotes from other sources too.
The lone weird thing about reading MEN AT WORK today is that Will, understandably, cites statistics that we no longer much use. Aside from that minor distraction, this excellent and thoughtful book is a joy.
Honorable mention: The Boys of Summer, Shoeless Joe, A Nice Little Place on the North Side, How Life Imitates the World Series, Veeck as in Wreck and The Summer Game.
Special mention: Banks to Sandberg to Grace. Carrie Muskat’s interviews that touch on Buck O’Neil’s time as the first Afro-American coach In the big leagues are especially interesting.
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