April 2008

The boy of spring

By Steve Garvey
By Terry Heffernan
By Rob Neyer
By Bob Mitchell
Review by
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Former Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Steve Garvey grew up in Florida, where his father drove a Greyhound bus and often ferried around major league teams during spring training. That connection led to the young Garvey scoring a gig as a Grapefruit League batboy, which brought him into memorable associations with the Brooklyn Dodgers of the mid-1950s. My Bat Boy Days: Lessons I Learned from the Boys of Summer is Garvey's tribute to the heroes of his youth. The book is framed by chapters in which Garvey reminisces about his special experience as a youngster in the dugout, but the bulk of the book comprises chapters that run down the lives and careers of the greats he encountered: Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, Carl Erskine, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Sandy Koufax, Mickey Mantle, Al Kaline. There's nothing particularly new or revelatory in the text – the quotes seem to be taken from old magazine articles and other available sources – but Garvey and his two co-writers nicely summarize the players' achievements and their historical importance.

Memorable moments

100 Baseball Icons: From the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum Archives is a choice little gift item that features the photography of Terry Heffernan, whose shots of memorabilia from the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, include the obvious (Willie Mays' shoes, Hank Aaron's bats, Ted Williams' uniform) but also focus on more arcane items. The latter include a vintage umpire's ball-strike indicator, a 1925 contract signing pitching great Walter Johnson for the handsome sum of $20,000, commemorative patches and rings, tobacco pins (from back when players endorsed the evil weed), bobblehead dolls and various artifacts from the Negro Leagues. Famous baseballs, baseball cards and team pennants are also part of the coverage. Maybe the most evocative photo is the double-spread of a gorgeous, perfectly cooked hot dog getting slathered with mustard. Like Bogey said, "A hot dog at the ball park is better than steak at the Ritz."

Everyone knows that baseball's historical charm derives from its legend and lore: those many on- and off-the-field stories that bemuse and often enthrall committed fans. Yet in Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends: The Truth, the Lies, and Everything Else, the author sets out to either confirm or debunk some of those tall tales. Neyer collects dozens of accounts of incidents—some very famous, some less so—as reported in books or newspapers or magazines, then digs into the readily available modern-day statistical sources, especially on the Internet (e.g., Retrosheet), to cross-check the facts. Unsurprisingly, Neyer's detective work sets the record straight most of the time, his correctives flying in the face of all that well-worn anecdotal whimsy. Hence, we get the truer stories, but not necessarily the better ones. Statistical guru Bill James provides the thoughtful foreword, and he actually seems to express some mixed emotions about Neyer's project. It's great reading, though, and it's fun to revisit the mythical baseball events of the past and then get the factual dope.

Fantasy league

Bob Mitchell's Once Upon a Fastball is a baseball novel that mixes magic with a devotional fondness for the game's days gone by. Hip Harvard history prof Seth Stein is kind of a touchy-feely guy: He's a somewhat guiltily divorced father (who also has a new serious girlfriend), drinks designer coffee and beer, strums his Martin guitar and has a strong streak of cultural literacy. But also, his revered grandfather has been missing for two years. Then one day, Seth opens a box and finds an old, major league-issue baseball inside, which has strange properties that whisk him away to the playing fields of the past. These time-warp journeys all connect to the fate of Grandpa Sol, who was the original inspiration for Seth's baseball fanaticism. Author Mitchell obviously knows and loves the game, its history and the players, and when he's talking baseball, even within his tale's mystical context, that's when things are most interesting. His prose never rises to the level of, say, Bernard Malamud or W.P. Kinsella, but he certainly offers a fanciful and engaging story for fans who might like to read something more challenging than a box score.

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