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.