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.