John C. Williams

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The towering baseball book of the season is a revisionist treatment of the sport’s earliest days. Other titles suggest the continuing relevance of this past to baseball’s present.

INVENTION VS. EVOLUTION
After three decades of research, John Thorn has published a major history on the sport’s origins, Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game. It has long been known that Abner Doubleday did not invent baseball, as was once claimed. Now we learn that Doubleday’s more believable replacement, Alexander Cartwright, didn’t have that much to do with it either. Both, it seems, were beneficiaries of posthumous lobbying campaigns. Thorn makes the intriguing suggestion that Doubleday’s ascendance was due to his association with Theosophy, an esoteric spiritual movement that just so happened to claim the allegiance of early baseball magnate Albert Spalding, spearhead of an official commission to discover the national pastime’s origins. As for Cartwright, he played on the Knickerbocker club that is routinely credited with staging the first modern baseball game in 1845; but Thorn argues that his role has been overstated, much to the neglect of other club members who helped develop the rules. What’s more, the rules these Knickerbockers played by in 1845 would have been strange to the modern spectator. Pitches were thrown underhand, bases were not spaced at 90 feet until 1857, and the “first” game did not use a shortstop because the position did not yet exist. Thorn’s argument, then, is one that common sense should dictate, but that we Americans have rejected out of need for a creation myth: No one “invented” the game of baseball, but rather it evolved over a long period of time. By insisting that baseball has one father, we have forgotten all its grandfathers, the different versions of the game played in rural areas, in cities outside New York and, most fascinatingly, in Massachusetts, where the field was 360 degrees and there was no such thing as foul ground.

Thorn is also interested in the game’s development beyond the rules. A major theme of the book is the tension between baseball’s ideal and its reality. This tension was apparent from the earliest days. A key virtue of the sport was said to be its “manliness,” but the Knickerbockers were for the most part fat, citified white-collar workers. Their club was meant to be exactly what that word connotes: a gathering of elites. But a blue-collar element threatened the gentility of the sport. Indeed, Thorn argues that without gambling, baseball would have never become what it is today. Along with fighting and drinking—one actually used to be able to purchase a whiskey at the ballpark—gambling completed early baseball’s trifecta of sin. Owners would continually try to eliminate these vices as various leagues emerged and faltered in the last quarter of the 19th century. But the owners had their own vices, particularly in the way they treated players, and their avarice played no small role in the game’s early struggle for stability.

IN SUPPORT OF LEISURE
In light of Thorn’s history, it is interesting to read the perspective of a much later commissioner, A. Bartlett Giamatti, in the reissue of 1989’s Take Time For Paradise: Americans and Their Games. This slim volume is best described as an academic meditation on leisure (albeit with baseball as Exhibit A): Aristotle, Shakespeare and Milton are cited, but there’s not one mention of any particular player. The book places Giamatti firmly within the idealist rather than the realist school. His particular focus is on baseball’s communal nature, though he does attempt to grapple with technological change and the way it atomizes spectators. Gambling, which so concerned early baseball owners, is not mentioned at all—strange, perhaps, considering that Giamatti was the man who agreed to banish Pete Rose. Giamatti is more concerned here with cheating, which he considers to threaten the integrity of the game. Giamatti died suddenly in 1989, so he did not live to see the era of rampant steroids use. One wonders how he would have dealt with the issue considering his strong words here.

THE BUSINESS OF BASEBALL
Thorn’s early baseball owners come to mind while reading The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First. In telling the story of the Tampa Bay Rays (née Devil Rays), Jonah Keri introduces us to Vincent Naimoli, the team’s original owner. Way back in the deadball days, owners owned multiple clubs and cannibalized the rosters to create one super team and multiple anemic ones. This had a way of depriving the fans of competitive baseball. Naimoli achieved the same result, but in a more modern fashion: He squandered money on overrated talent. Naimoli managed to gain even more detractors by instituting policies seemingly intended to alienate fans. Enter a new team of Wall Street wunderkinds, who used a rebranding effort to change the club’s image, fan-friendly policies to put people in the seats and new statistical metrics to put a winning squad on the field. Voila—the Rays became AL champs. This book will inevitably be compared to Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, but it imparts a broader sense of what it takes to run a successful sports franchise, off the field as well as on, and it is more of a general business primer than Lewis’ book. The Extra 2% might be criticized for a somewhat simplistic good-guy, bad-guy structure—the hapless early management team did develop key players, after all, a fact that Keri doesn’t adequately explain. Nevertheless, the book provides an entertaining case study, as well as an interesting vantage point from which to consider baseball’s business past.

 
John C. Williams has written for the Oxford American, PopMatters and the Arkansas Times.

 

The towering baseball book of the season is a revisionist treatment of the sport’s earliest days. Other titles suggest the continuing relevance of this past to baseball’s present. INVENTION VS. EVOLUTIONAfter three decades of research, John Thorn has published a major history on the sport’s origins, Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History […]
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Sports fans with a nose for books will have plenty to keep them busy this winter, with major new titles on baseball, football, basketball and outdoor pursuits. The styles are diverse, too: Releases include photo-heavy coffee-table tomes, brisk memoirs and literary nonfiction.

GUTS & GLORY
The best bet of the season is The Big Show: Charles M. Conlon’s Golden Age Baseball Photographs. This collection, compiled by Neal and Constance McCabe and introduced by Roger Kahn, focuses on the period from 1904-1942. Conlon was an amateur photographer who never quit his day job, but this book is an argument that his player portraits deserve the status of high art. The selections include plenty of super­stars—Cobb, Gehrig, Ruth and DiMaggio all appear—but the real delight is in the photos of lesser players such as Buzz McWeeny and Sunset Jimmy Burke. Each photo is given a caption that tells the story of the man it portrays: Bugs Raymond, who was beaten to death with a bat after a semi-pro game; Jimmy Archer, who lost the ability to extend his throwing arm when he fell into a vat of boiling soap; and the countless players whose careers succumbed to alcoholism. For those interested in prewar baseball, this is a wonderful historical document, and it’s a delight to pore over the old-time uniforms, the bats and the gloves and the primitive catching equipment. But the appeal of the book runs deeper. The men portrayed just happen to be baseball players. At their best, Conlon’s photos capture a humanity that comes through regardless of sport.

For more flash (if not more style), try 100 Yards of Glory: The Greatest Moments in NFL History. Co-written by Joe Garner and broadcaster Bob Costas, this is an NFL-approved catalog of league history, told in the form of superlatives: the greatest Super Bowls, the greatest catches, the greatest comebacks and so on. The photos can’t hope to match Conlon’s—with some exceptions, most are of sports-page quality—and there is plenty of room for argument about the anointed highlights. Though some choices seem rather present-minded—is Sean Payton really a coaching great?—the book does a good job covering moments from the pre-Super Bowl era. There’s a lot of material here, and Monday-morning quarterbacks will enjoy thumbing these ample pages. In case paper and ink are not enough, the book comes with a DVD containing archival NFL video.

HOOPS HEAVEN
Since the NBA has recently been plagued by labor strife, many basketball fans will enjoy looking back to the league’s happier days. When the Garden Was Eden: Clyde, the Captain, Dollar Bill, and the Glory Days of the Old Knicks should serve nicely. Author Harvey Araton, a longtime Knicks reporter currently writing for the New York Times, does excellent work bringing to life a team that many consider “the most intelligent ever”: Willis Reed, the quiet, inspiring center; Walt Frazier, whose flashy style belied a root conservatism; Phil Jackson, a lesser player who would become the most celebrated of basketball coaches; and Bill Bradley, who transitioned from forward to U.S. senator. This so-called “old” basketball club reached its apex only 40 years ago, but the book shows how the team’s style was far removed from the star-focused game of today. These Knicks truly played as a unit—remarkable, considering the strong individual personas that Araton ably profiles. (As one of his interviewees puts it, the team was a group of “many personalities, but somehow no egos.”) The book makes something of a stab at placing the Knicks against the backdrop of Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement, but the real action here is on the court. 

The court fades to the background in Shaq Uncut, Shaquille O’Neal’s post-retirement memoir, co-authored with Jackie MacMullan. The big center liked his teammates to dish him the ball, and now he dishes back on Penny Hardaway, Kobe Bryant and Pat Riley, among others. Shaq doesn’t hit all that hard, but he still manages to emerge an unsympathetic character. We learn much less about what motivates the man than about how he likes to spend his money. (One suspects the two topics are not unrelated.) His well-known love of law enforcement is discussed but essentially goes unexplained; there is more, albeit only slightly, about his relationship with his tough stepfather and his disdain for the biological father who abandoned him and his mother. But even if Shaq hasn’t earned the right to dub himself the Big Proust, the memoir’s candid quality will satisfy those who care to glance inside the mind of a modern-day hoops star.

FACING CHALLENGES
Room for Improvement: Notes on a Dozen Lifelong Sports is a memoir of outdoor life far removed from the arenas of spectator sport. John Casey, a National Book Award–winning novelist (for Spartina), describes years of challenging his own capabilities, often by rowing, hiking, cross-country skiing or running, usually at long distances. This might sound intimidating to the sedentary reader, but Casey takes a thoughtful approach, aware of his physical inadequacies as he probes the purpose behind his sporting passions. The essays here, several of which were published as magazine articles, are occasionally fragmentary, and they are held together by not much more than the progression of time from Casey’s young manhood to older age. But an erratic overall pace does not detract from the nuggets in each piece. The book will immediately appeal to those who share Casey’s need for physical challenge, but even the less athletically adventurous will discover something worthwhile in Casey’s reflections. 

Sports fans with a nose for books will have plenty to keep them busy this winter, with major new titles on baseball, football, basketball and outdoor pursuits. The styles are diverse, too: Releases include photo-heavy coffee-table tomes, brisk memoirs and literary nonfiction. GUTS & GLORYThe best bet of the season is The Big Show: Charles […]
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Baseball is a game of threes—three strikes to an out, three outs to an inning, three times three innings to a game. Here we present three new books with very different takes on the national pastime.

THE SACRED

Baseball as a Road to God by NYU president John Sexton, is one of the most unorthodox baseball books published in recent memory.  Indeed, it may be better not to call this a “baseball book” at all, but rather a peculiar entry in the counterattack against the new atheists of the Richard Dawkins stripe, arguing that baseball is a medium by which we can experience a “shining through of the sacred.” In a facile way, the game’s forms resemble those of a religion—stadiums its temples, the Hall of Fame its pantheon of saints—and Sexton draws on these analogies. But he goes beyond them to provide a comprehensive example of how the spiritual can manifest itself in the real. Sexton fills in his argument with plenty of familiar baseball history, and the book is shot through with exultation of the game. Its worshipful rhetoric matches the loftiness of the project, one with which it is worth engaging.

THE PROFANE

Leaving aside baseball’s sacred elements, Joe Peta’s Trading Bases: A Story About Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball (Not Necessarily in That Order) represents the moneychangers in the temple. Profit is the name of the game here, and, untrue to its subtitle, the book takes as its subject Wall Street first, gambling a close second and baseball a distant third. The author, using his own experience as a stock trader, shares with readers—complete with clever pop culture references—a model by which to beat the Vegas odds and make a healthy return over a season of wagering. Readers keen on statistical analysis of baseball should take an interest, but others may find the technical language not worth the price of admission. The real revelations here are about the way gambling and markets work, not baseball. Still, Peta appreciates the charms of the game, and the book contains several nice reminiscences that suggest he and Sexton would find common ground over a beer.

CARDINAL RULES

With every April comes the return of baseball, and so too, it seems, comes a history of an individual season connecting the sport to the great issues of its era. This year the book is The Victory Season, the year is 1946, and the milieu is the struggle of the U.S. to adjust to peacetime. Many players had fought in WWII, and Robert Weintraub brings new light to the world of baseball within the military. After the war, key figures of the 1946 season include Jackie Robinson, preparing to break the color line; Larry MacPhail, overseeing the crassification of the Yankees; and especially Enos Slaughter of the Cardinals, a team destined to meet the Red Sox in the World Series. Under the weight of these personalities, the broader social history falls mostly by the wayside—Robert Murphy’s early attempt to unionize the players, for example, is only glimpsed. The detail can be a bit overwhelming, but those interested in this era of baseball will find a rich accounting in Weintraub’s book.

Baseball is a game of threes—three strikes to an out, three outs to an inning, three times three innings to a game. Here we present three new books with very different takes on the national pastime. THE SACRED Baseball as a Road to God by NYU president John Sexton, is one of the most unorthodox […]
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There are certain years that trigger immediate associations in any baseball fan’s mind. 1903: the first World Series. 1927: Murderer’s Row. 1961: Mantle and Maris. 1994: the players’ strike. Whether 2014 will produce such a season is yet to be written, but a tremendous crop of baseball books guarantees this year to be one for the publishing annals.

Is there any more complicated figure in the modern baseball era than Pete Rose? Consider the brief of Kostya Kennedy, author of the magnificent new biography Pete Rose: An American Dilemma. Those with even casual baseball knowledge are familiar with the outline: “Charlie Hustle,” Cincinnati Reds stalwart, the man who always slid headfirst and who attained the Major League record for base hits, is evicted from the game—as well as from eligibility for the Hall of Fame—for betting on those Reds while serving as their manager. Kennedy takes that familiar story and delves deeper, presenting an artful portrait of the blue-collar world Rose came from, the dream world he ascended to and the bizarre world he slipped into after his banishment.

In doing so, Kennedy touches on a theme well beyond baseball: the inherent contradictions of human nature. How could someone who willed himself to the top of his profession with such clarity of purpose throw away his legacy with such singular dissipation? The tragic element of Rose’s life—his ability to bend circumstances to his will in one context yet to lose all sense of rationality in another—is stuff worthy of Shakespeare. Kennedy handles it just fine, though. For the market, the book is pitched as a re-evaluation of Rose’s fate now that baseball has suffered though steroids, arguably a graver sin than gambling. Kennedy doesn’t break new factual ground or suggest “answers” so much as refocus the question. And he presents a compelling case that whether Rose deserves his lifetime suspension should be evaluated separately from whether he should be eligible for the Hall. It’s interesting enough material for the baseball reader, but the appeal of this book goes further. With writing of such quality and a subject of such complexity, it deserves to be read by anyone who appreciates good biography.

HARD-BOILED BASEBALL
No baseball book in recent memory has been as uproarious as They Called Me God, written by legendary umpire Doug Harvey with an assist from longtime sportswriter Peter Golenbock. Harvey, one of only nine umpires in the Hall of Fame and considered by many—including himself—to be one of the best of all time, worked the National League from 1962 to 1992. Stylistically, the book is a marvel, particularly while recounting Harvey’s origins. Its staccato style and fatalistic tone are on par with classic noir. Take, for example, this setup: “The regulars had been drinking, I’d had a few myself, and I was sitting there wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life.” Or this meditation on his professional plight: “There was just one perfect umpire, and they put him on the cross.” I won’t spoil any more gems.

The book is billed as a tell-all. No kidding. Man, does Harvey settle some scores. His first wife, coaches who disrespected him, cheating pitchers and the league officials who enabled them—no one, it seems, is safe. But the book is written with such good humor and honest feeling that you can hardly begrudge Harvey these takedowns. Harvey only blows one call, so to speak, by including a painfully awkward story about the late umpire Eric Gregg that should not have seen the printed page. That aside, the book offers refreshing insight into an umpire’s world, and with considerable panache.

FROM THE FRIENDLY CONFINES
About 20 years ago, the band the Mountain Goats produced a tune called “Cubs in Five.” The title was a joke—the song is about stuff that is unlikely to happen—but it encapsulates nicely the futility of rooting for Chicago’s National League squad. Even if renowned columnist and Bunts author George F. Will hasn’t heard the song, he gets the sentiment, as is apparent from his latest baseball foray, A Nice Little Place on the North Side: Wrigley Field at One Hundred.

Appropriately for a topic as inherently funny as the Cubs, Will takes a droll approach. In about the amount of time it takes to soak in a ballgame, the reader is treated to a romp through Cubs history, from the origins of Wrigley Field up to the Steve Bartman debacle. As this is George Will, there’s a dollop of evolutionary psychology and economics on the side, though nothing much heavier than an Old Style. 

About that field. The title evokes it, and it is the focus of the book’s thesis: that the beauty of the ballpark is in large part responsible for the consistently poor quality of the product on the diamond. Will has discovered, through the work of some authors he cites, that ticket sales at Wrigley bear a smaller-than-normal correlation to the team’s record and actually are more sensitive to the price of a beer in the stadium than the cost of admission. By providing a good place to watch baseball, Will hypothesizes, management has relieved itself of the need to provide a good baseball team. At least the theory has the virtue of explaining the otherwise inexplicable phenomenon that is the Cubs.

BACK TO THE MINORS
Every kid dreams of hitting a game-winning homer in the World Series. No kid dreams of hitting anything at all for the Montgomery Biscuits. That, in a nutshell, is the idea behind John Feinstein’s Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball, a thorough and enjoyable profile of the players, coaches, umpires, radio announcers and pretty much everyone else besides the peanut vendors who are associated with minor league baseball. By focusing on eight different people over the course of the 2012 season, Feinstein ably shows how the tantalizing promise of working in the bigs—not to mention the attendant compensation and creature comforts—shapes the lives of those who are still down on the farm. The book has a nice pace: casual and a little rambling, though a bit repetitive at times and with lags here and there. Not so different, come to think of it, than a midsummer Double-A tilt.

There are certain years that trigger immediate associations in any baseball fan’s mind. 1903: the first World Series. 1927: Murderer’s Row. 1961: Mantle and Maris. 1994: the players’ strike. Whether 2014 will produce such a season is yet to be written, but a tremendous crop of baseball books guarantees this year to be one for the publishing annals.

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Baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half physical, Yogi Berra once said. That precise calculation is debatable, but, however you cut it, the game has always been the thinking person’s sport. So it’s appropriate that each of these books on the national pastime highlights some aspect of baseball’s brain. 

Perhaps “brain” is not the first word one associates with the subject of Bill Pennington’s new bio, Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius. “Brawn” is more like it. The longtime manager got into so many brawls—on and off the field—that it’s hard to keep track. Over 500-plus pages and 49 chapters, Pennington provides a comprehensive document that amply illustrates the thesis stated in his introduction: that Martin represented an American dream of freedom.

Freedom of the damn-the-torpedoes sort, at least. It’s the version of freedom in which you tell the boss to take the job and shove it, which Martin effectively did again and again, most famously leading to five firings by George Steinbrenner’s Yankees. But Pennington also makes a good case that Martin indeed had a managerial brain of the first order. His tactics were often unorthodox and hardly in line with what has become conventional wisdom among statistics-minded managers. He relied heavily on playing head games with the opposing team. Whatever was in the sauce, though, it usually worked, as he often wrung production out of underperforming players and won the 1977 World Series with the Yankees.

Martin’s life was a rollicking one, and as with the life, so with the book. Pennington’s take is great fun, and the author’s drive to talk to everyone who may have known Martin—from the most arrogant star to the humblest bartender—is impressive. But perhaps Pennington should have left some of his material in the dugout. This reader, for one, did not need to know that Martin was a bad shot at the toilet. Still, the hits are greater than the misses. It’s sure to become the definitive biography of one of the game’s most fascinating characters.

We meet Martin’s polar opposite in Baseball Maverick: How Sandy Alderson Revolutionized Baseball and Revived the Mets. Steve Kettmann, who previously ghostwrote Jose Canseco’s steroids tell-all, Juiced, opens with a strong vignette of general manager Alderson’s wheeling and dealing to trade Mets star Carlos Beltrán for phenom pitcher Zack Wheeler in 2011. Kettmann then details Alderson’s time as a Marine in Vietnam, his stint at Harvard Law School and his seemingly accidental rise to the Oakland A’s front office in the early 1980s. Oakland won the World Series in 1989 under Alderson’s guidance, and Kettmann shows how Alderson tutored Billy Beane, who would later become the A’s general manager, of Moneyball fame.

At this point, the book begins to lose some steam, becoming less an Alderson biography and more a day-to-day chronicle of the 2013 and 2014 Mets seasons. The book’s subtitle contains a bit of false advertising, as the Mets have not produced a winning season under Alderson (though the 2015 team shows promise). Nevertheless, for the reader—particularly the diehard Mets fan— interested in insider accounts of the front office, this book is worth seeking out.

Alderson’s key contribution was to pay closer attention to statistical analysis. A Bible of this data-driven style is The Hidden Game of Baseball: A Revolutionary Approach to Baseball and Its Statistics by John Thorn and Pete Palmer, originally published in 1984 and now available in a third edition. The book is a defiant challenge to conventional wisdom that dominated professional baseball for most of the 20th century—that batting average is an accurate metric of batting performance, for example, or that RBIs can tell us who the greatest hitters are. The authors propose a series of new measures, some of which—such as on-base percentage plus slugging—have become standard. Others had suggested similar ideas before, mostly in technical papers, but the beauty of this book is its pure literary merit. It contains plenty of daunting graphs and equations, but it almost always gives those graphs and equations a heart with its prose.

This book has one significant weakness, which is that its main text has not been updated since its original publication. It illustrates statistical principles with early 1980s players sure to be unfamiliar to many of today’s readers. The authors have compiled an updated list of the best players of all time—Barry Bonds is greater than Babe Ruth!—but they provide no additional reflections on that list. Still, as an introduction to statistical analysis of the game, it’s hard to go wrong with Thorn and Palmer.

 

This article was originally published in the April 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half physical, Yogi Berra once said. That precise calculation is debatable, but, however you cut it, the game has always been the thinking person’s sport. So it’s appropriate that each of these books on the national pastime highlights some aspect of baseball’s brain.
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Baseball players are commodities. Many are high-priced commodities, to be sure. Stars and solid regulars are routinely traded in high-profile deals and signed to lucrative contracts. Meanwhile, bushers and journeymen toil in the minors and must seek new buyers when they are inevitably cut. This business aspect of the game—so easy to forget in the glow of Opening Day or in the heat of a pennant chase—rises to the surface in several new baseball books. 

THE RISE OF THE PITCHER
With every new season comes another tome touted as the next Moneyball, Michael Lewis’ influential story of baseball’s statistical revolution. Usually these books are just Lewis lite. Jeff Passan’s The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports is the real deal—a book that’s both readable as hell and that has something meaningful to say about the way the game works. Passan’s subject is the pitcher, more specifically the pitcher’s elbow. The past few years have seen an uptick in injuries to the ulnar collateral ligament, or UCL, the string that binds the upper and lower arm. The use of Tommy John surgery, the corrective procedure developed 40 years ago and named after the pitcher who pioneered it, has skyrocketed. Passan sets out to learn why this epidemic has stricken the game, how it has affected players and whether it can be stopped—an especially urgent question given the money teams spend on top wings. His quest is exhaustive. He talks with the country’s best surgeons; he visits America’s elite youth tournaments, where 13-year-olds are scouted and ranked; he travels to Japan, where youths throw hundreds of pitches a day; and he observes work at labs for the study of pitching mechanics. The next analytics revolution in baseball, Passan suggests, is focused on understanding and preventing pitching injuries. Most memorably, Passan follows Daniel Hudson and Todd Coffey, the first an up-and-coming starter, the second a 30-something middle reliever, as they try to bounce back from their second Tommy John. This human element lends the book its propulsive quality, but every part is fascinating. The Arm is a must-read.

THE RISE OF FREE AGENCY
Krister Swanson examines the game’s broader labor market in Baseball’s Power Shift: How the Players Union, the Fans, and the Media Changed American Sports Culture. The book is a tight study of how professional players fought against management to ensure better treatment and fair compensation. Swanson brings us all the way back to 1885, when John Montgomery Ward formed baseball’s first union, the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players. The union’s primary target was the reserve clause, the feature of the standard contract that blocked players from signing with other clubs and deflated their pay. The Brotherhood failed. So did other attempts at unionization, until Marvin Miller—the most important baseball figure not in the Hall of Fame—became head of the Major League Baseball Players Association. Under Miller’s tenure, the union ended the reserve clause and ensured the system of free agency and salary arbitration that’s in place today. Swanson deftly shows how the media influenced these changes. Much of the battle was fought in the papers, where writers wed to romantic (and often paternal) notions of the game argued with those who saw the MLB as the big business it is. At the same time, the explosion of television revenues made significant salaries possible for the utility man as well as for the star. One is left wishing that Swanson’s study had covered 1994, when a work stoppage cancelled the World Series. Still, Baseball’s Power Shift is an essential primer for anyone who wants to understand the sport’s labor dynamics. 

HOME RUN DEAL
Of course, even the most famous name can be traded or sold, and in the early 20th century there was no bigger sale than the one that sent Babe Ruth from the Red Sox to the Yankees. Glenn Stout covers the deal in The Selling of the Babe: The Deal That Changed Baseball and Created a Legend. By 1919, Ruth was a star pitcher with a spark in his bat—he had hit 49 homers with the Sox in five dead-ball seasons—but he was also ungovernable. In hindsight, the sale looks idiotic, but in the moment, Ruth was hardly a sure bet. What’s more, the deal made a lot of financial sense for Harry Frazee, the Red Sox owner, who got full ownership of Fenway Park. Stout occasionally plows through the details, but that’s the price of a brisk portrait of Babe on the brink. 

AN INFLUENTIAL MANAGER
The historian Maury Klein takes a more meticulous approach in Stealing Games: How John McGraw Transformed Baseball with the 1911 New York Giants. The subtitle contains a bit of overselling, as these Giants don’t really appear to have changed baseball. Sure, this team stole a lot of bases—347, the most in the modern game—but so did the 1912 and 1913 squads (319 and 296, respectively). The 1911 campaign seems more a convenient framing device, as a third of the material covers previous Giants seasons. Really, this book is more about McGraw, who managed the Giants for 30 years, starting in 1902. Never one to shy from trading a player if he could find a better fit for his speed-based schemes, McGraw was perhaps the greatest manager in the history of early baseball. There’s a lot of blow-by-blow here—perhaps too much—but Klein provides a robust portrait of what the sport was like during the dead-ball era.

 

This article was originally published in the April 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Baseball players are commodities. Many are high-priced commodities, to be sure. Stars and solid regulars are routinely traded in high-profile deals and signed to lucrative contracts. Meanwhile, bushers and journeymen toil in the minors and must seek new buyers when they are inevitably cut. This business aspect of the game—so easy to forget in the glow of Opening Day or in the heat of a pennant chase—rises to the surface in several new baseball books.
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It’s a new world, baseball fans. The Cubs are World Series champs for the first time since 1908—and there’s plenty to read this spring about the team’s success. The lovable losers stopped losing by employing a manager untethered to traditionalism, a load of young talent and an analytics-savvy front office. This sort of data-driven thinking has become a favorite topic of baseball books, and we get another strong entry this year. The gem of the season, though, takes us back to an earlier era and a much rowdier and more dysfunctional bunch.

To start with the team of the moment: It’s hard to overstate the enormity of the Cubs’ triumph. Just three years ago, they were fresh off an abysmal 96-loss season; in this very space, a reviewer had the gall to call the Cubs “inherently funny.” Oh, how the tables have turned. The last laugh goes to Scott Simon, whose My Cubs: A Love Story is a brisk, sweet romp through Cubs history to the glorious present. Who can forget the numberless celebrity Cub fans who emerged at the 2016 Classic—your Bill Murrays, your John Cusacks, your Eddie Vedders? Simon, host of NPR’s “Weekend Edition Saturday,” was among them, if not so frequently the object of the Fox cameraman’s gaze. Hard to question his bona fides, though. “Uncle Charlie” was Charlie Grimm, who managed when the Cubs last appeared in the Series in 1945. “Uncle Jack” was longtime broadcaster Jack Brickhouse. Neither of these men was Simon’s uncle in the technical sense, but they were close enough to get him access to Wrigley as a boy and a lifelong Cubbie bug.

The personal bits are the best parts here. Simon also finds some deep cuts, such as a remembrance of second baseman Ken Hubbs, whose star shone bright in the early ’60s before a plane crash snuffed it out. Most of the rest is familiar to the initiated—the goat, the Bartman, the victory just lived—though sprinkled liberally with Simon’s Cubs-related doggerel. The Chicago faithful should eat it up, baseball fans with an ear for whimsy will be amused, and no one can begrudge it (Cleveland devotees excepted).

BUILDING A DYNASTY
More straightforward, though deeper, is Tom Verducci’s The Cubs Way: The Zen of Building the Best Team in Baseball and Breaking the Curse. The stars of this show are Theo Epstein, the curse-dispelling general manager who earned his first star with the Red Sox, and Joe Maddon, the unorthodox coach and, as is reported here, big Pat Conroy fan. Verducci, who got plenty of access to his subjects, handles Epstein’s transition to the Cubs from the Sox and Maddon’s coaching philosophy. He structures the story of the team’s construction around a game-by-game description of the 2016 Series. It’s an effective and entertaining breakdown of what looks to be the next MLB dynasty.

THE FUTURE OF STATS
You can be sure the Cubs front office is hip to the stats that are the subject of ESPN analyst Keith Law’s Smart Baseball: The Story Behind the Old Stats That Are Ruining the Game, the New Ones That Are Running It, and the Right Way to Think about Baseball. The subtitle, in all its verbosity and italicization, nicely encapsulates the author’s impatience with atavistic analysis. And it provides the three-part structure for the book.

In the first section, Law brings the hammer down on stats like batting average, RBI and fielding percentage—pillars of baseball cards but irrelevant to a player’s true quality. In the second, he discusses more revealing measures like on-base percentage and fielding independent pitching. In the third, he applies modern stats to questions like the Hall of Fame and discusses where the future of baseball analytics is going—particularly with the advent of MLB’s Statcast product, which promises to give us new information and to make hard-to-quantify abilities like defense easier to grade.

Many readers will already know the undeniable truths here (like the idiocy of saves and pitcher wins); on some of the less familiar concepts (like weighted on-base average, or wOBA), the book is, unfortunately, a bit murky. In most of its sections, though, it qualifies as a useful introduction to (or refresher on) statistical fundamentals—assuming the reader doesn’t mind a little snark, a flat attempt at humor here and there or a condescending tone. Pete Palmer and John Thorn’s The Hidden Game of Baseball (to which this book owes a great debt) is better stats through dense mathematical analysis. Michael Lewis’ Moneyball is better stats through narrative. Smart Baseball is better stats through polemic.

DYSFUNCTIONAL FUN
One team that most certainly did not believe in “smart baseball” was the 1970s Oakland A’s, which took three straight Series from 1972–74. Jason Turbow tells their tale in Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic: Reggie, Rollie, Catfish, and Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s. This team is a perfect fit for Turbow, a wonderful storyteller who gave us a rollicking look at major league players’ daily lives in The Baseball Codes. These A’s were a dysfunctional bunch, known almost as much for their fighting in the locker room as for their play on the field. (Manager Dick Williams could shrug off his own role in one of these scrums by telling the press, “And don’t forget, I had five or six scotches at the time.”)

What arguably fueled the winning was the one person the A’s hated worse than each other: owner Charlie Finley. He was a dictator, a micromanager and a showman. He favored loading up the bench with pinch runners; one of his prized signings was a sprinter who couldn’t read a pitcher’s pickoff move. And he was a skinflint, a quality that earned him the enmity of his players and that famously drove off star pitcher Catfish Hunter. The beauty of Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic is that it works on two levels: as a great yarn but also a sharp illustration of the game as it existed just before free agency changed it forever. Turbow tells the story with a facility that makes it the read of the season.

 

This article was originally published in the April 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

It’s a new world, baseball fans. The Cubs are World Series champs for the first time since 1908—and there’s plenty to read this spring about the team’s success. The lovable losers stopped losing by employing a manager untethered to traditionalism, a load of young talent and an analytics-savvy front office. This sort of data-driven thinking has become a favorite topic of baseball books, and we get another strong entry this year. The gem of the season, though, takes us back to an earlier era and a much rowdier and more dysfunctional bunch.

Since her retirement from the Supreme Court in 2006, Sandra Day O’Connor has given prominent support to the improvement of civics education, with special focus on the role of the judiciary in American government. Out of Order is fully in keeping with that mission. With a brisk pace and a conversational style, Justice O’Connor’s book succeeds in giving the reader an accessible view of how the court works and how it has changed over time.

Out of Order opens with a vignette about O’Connor’s first trip to the Supreme Court as a “simple tourist,” decades before she became the first woman to ascend to its bench. Now invested with 25 years of experience and a passion for the court’s history, her book is aimed at readers who, like her at one time, might never have hoped to get closer to the court than its marble steps. We learn of how justices were once expected to log hundreds of miles on horseback each year to hear cases in other courts around the country. We hear about notable court cases and discover how they affected the course of American history. We meet great oral advocates and charismatic judges, and we get an inside view of judicial humor and the rituals that permeate the court. Though close followers of the court will be familiar with much of this material, O’Connor provides tidbits of trivia that may surprise even the winner of your local law school’s fantasy Supreme Court league. Who knew that Justice Rutledge could not attend the August 1790 session because he was incapacitated by gout?

It is worth noting what this book is not. It does not provide any commentary on contemporary judicial debates, nor is it colored by O’Connor’s opinions. Indeed, the book’s tone is such that the reader may sometimes forget that the author is a person who lived the history she’s writing about. But what Out of Order does do is provide a clear, informative and entertaining lesson in history and civics. Those searching for a fundamental understanding of the Supreme Court will do well to turn to this volume.

Since her retirement from the Supreme Court in 2006, Sandra Day O’Connor has given prominent support to the improvement of civics education, with special focus on the role of the judiciary in American government. Out of Order is fully in keeping with that mission. With a brisk pace and a conversational style, Justice O’Connor’s book […]

There are two theses running through The Oath, Jeffrey Toobin’s follow-up to his 2008 Supreme Court profile, The Nine. The first is that former constitutional law professor Barack Obama and current Chief Justice John Roberts have fundamentally opposed theories of constitutional interpretation. As Toobin writes, it is Roberts who is an “apostle of change” and Obama who is “determined to hold on to an older version of the meaning of the Constitution.” The book bills itself by this difference, but Toobin fails to deliver a thorough portrait on the president’s end. Though he convincingly argues that judicial matters are not high among the president’s priorities, Toobin offers little about Obama’s legal philosophy. The Oath is really an up-close look at recent high-profile cases on the Supreme Court’s docket.

That brings us to the book’s second thesis: Constitutional law is politics by other means, at least in the current day. This sentiment pervades the discussion of the cases at the book’s core: District of Columbia v. Heller’s location of an individual right to a handgun in the Second Amendment; Citizens United and the Court’s equation of corporate campaign contributions with speech; and this summer’s decision to uphold the individual mandate in Obama’s healthcare law. In each of these cases, Toobin sees a battle between Democrats and Republicans. Legal theories serve as proxies for partisan politics. Some might view this equivalence as overly simplistic and the emphasis on big-ticket cases as unduly narrow. Yet it is difficult to refute the notion that the Court has taken a conservative tack—even prior to Roberts—that relies on overturning legal precedent.

Overall, The Oath is an entertaining read that provides lively personal accounts of the justices and that makes complex legal issues understandable. It is a welcome portrait of the contemporary Supreme Court.

There are two theses running through The Oath, Jeffrey Toobin’s follow-up to his 2008 Supreme Court profile, The Nine. The first is that former constitutional law professor Barack Obama and current Chief Justice John Roberts have fundamentally opposed theories of constitutional interpretation. As Toobin writes, it is Roberts who is an “apostle of change” and […]

For 99 years now, Americans have celebrated, tolerated, blessed and cursed a baseball team called the New York Yankees. Damn Yankees brings together 24 essayists to explore the club’s history, its players and the reasons why—as the book’s subtitle tells us—the Yankees are the world’s most loved and hated team.

Overall, this is a well-conceived exercise. Editor Rob Fleder has collected some top-notch writing talent, and his authors take a wide range of approaches to their subject. Personal reminiscence is perennial in this sort of book—the most successful foray here is J.R. Moehringer’s tale of meeting a man in the Yankee Stadium nosebleeds who purported to be the oldest living Yankee. More satisfying for my money are pieces by biographers and profilers focusing on individual players. Jane Leavy supplements her recent Mickey Mantle biography by tracking down one of the Mick’s nemeses on the mound. Michael Paterniti turns in a moving profile of Catfish Hunter in the final days of his struggle with Lou Gehrig’s disease. And the best essay in the book belongs to Pete Dexter, who in his inimitable, hilarious style explains the greater lessons to be drawn from Chuck Knoblauch’s forgetting how to throw from second to first base.

Of course, this book would not be complete if it did not offer ruminations on Yankee hatred. Why do we deplore them so? Frank Deford has a few opinions in a blast that is sure to please Yankee bashers everywhere. A more complicated question: Is it ever okay to like the Yankees? Indeed, there are a very few people in this world who can root for the Yankees while retaining their credibility as true lovers of baseball. Roy Blount Jr. makes a noble effort to place himself among them.

The Yankees are and will remain an institution. Love ’em or loathe ’em, this collection is a fine assessment of what that institution means.

For 99 years now, Americans have celebrated, tolerated, blessed and cursed a baseball team called the New York Yankees. Damn Yankees brings together 24 essayists to explore the club’s history, its players and the reasons why—as the book’s subtitle tells us—the Yankees are the world’s most loved and hated team. Overall, this is a well-conceived […]

The headlines from the 2008 financial crisis targeted macro catastrophes: the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the perils of AIG, government bailouts. But the crisis also encompassed thousands of discrete dramas lived by homeowners with rotten mortgages. How did these nameless cope with the crumbling dream of homeownership, and how did they come to have that dream in the first place? Paul Reyes tackles these questions in Exiles in Eden, a compelling combination of memoir, history and reportage from one of the states hardest hit by the housing collapse.

Reyes (with whom I have worked at The Oxford American) is in a special position to tell this story. His father’s business is “trashing out” foreclosed Tampa-area homes—cleaning houses abandoned by owners who could not meet the payments. Working with his father’s crew, Reyes comes to know many evictees only through the detritus they have left behind. Others he tracks down—a former drug addict and current deacon who thought he had his life on track until the bank called; a man too stubborn to accept payment for his keys who one day simply disappears.

This portion of the book began as a National Magazine Award-nominated article for Harper’s. With Exiles in Eden, Reyes expands the scope of that piece in several ways. He examines his father’s personal history, from his early promise as an architect and engineer to his current struggles against the corporate trash-out giants the housing crisis has spawned. He reports on Max Rameau, a Miami activist who shelters families by putting them in houses legally the property of banks. He explores Lehigh Acres, a town built on hucksterism and the marketable appeal of homeownership rather than sustainable development—and a town where Reyes owns a quarter-acre because his parents fell prey to that hucksterism on their honeymoon in 1969.

Readers may wish that Exiles in Eden had gone into more detail about the rarified financial concepts it occasionally toys with. But Reyes offers something harder to come by: a reflection on the struggle between development and nature; on the clash between the rule of law and justice in housing; and on the many ways a life can be rocked by foreclosure.

 

The headlines from the 2008 financial crisis targeted macro catastrophes: the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the perils of AIG, government bailouts. But the crisis also encompassed thousands of discrete dramas lived by homeowners with rotten mortgages. How did these nameless cope with the crumbling dream of homeownership, and how did they come to have that […]

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