John C. Williams

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 […]

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 […]

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