From the Baseball Bookshelf

By Ron Kaplan
Posted 7/5/20

This summer, while we might not be able to go to the ball park or watch our favorite teams on the field, we can certainly sit back and spend time reading

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From the Baseball Bookshelf

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This summer, while we might not be able to go to the ball park or watch our favorite teams on the field, we can certainly sit back and spend time reading about America’s favorite pastime. Author and book critic Ron Kaplan has scanned his extensive baseball bookshelf and picked a few illuminating reads to help us manage through a grim and game-less season. The depth and breadth of baseball books is an example of the diversity that makes the sport so interesting. Something for everyone, as the saying goes. There are categories on statistics, history, biography, and the list goes on. Kaplan agreed to review 4 books for us that touch on different themes around the game: two biographies of iconic ball players, one interesting angle on team chemistry, and one light-hearted shelf piece for drawing laughs. (All 4 books are available for sale on our website below).

24: Life Stories and Lessons from the Say Hey Kid   By Willie Mays and John Shea (St. Martin’s Press)

There have been many books written about Willie Mays, but the Hall of Fame ballplayer wanted something different, something to serve as a teaching moment. Not coincidentally, the book is divided into the same number of chapters as Mays’ uniform, each based on a “life lesson,” such as ‘Life and Baseball Aren’t Fair: The Story of a Game of Inches’ and ‘Never Give Up: The Story of a 16-Inning Classic’. They follow a simple pattern: Mays makes a few brief comments and Shea, an award-winning national baseball writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, fleshes them out with details and anecdotes from fellow players, friends, and even ex-presidents. Notwithstanding the current social climate, the further we get away from Jackie Robinson’s breaking baseball’s color line in 1947, the more the younger readers might find unfathomable the difficulties faced by Black and Latino players in Mays’ day. Throughout the years, he has been relatively circumspect about his experiences with racism. He continues that trend here, save for his recollections of trying to buy a house in a fancy neighborhood in San Francisco. He’d rather focus on the positive. '24' comes across as a throwback to biographies and memoirs in a time before Jim Bouton’s ‘Ball Four’. There is no gossip, animosity, or dishing dirt that we have come to expect since then. Instead, Mays is gentle and generous with his praise, as when he talks about his rivalry with the Yankees’ Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider of the Brooklyn Dodgers for the title of best New York outfielder.

Bouton: The Life of a Baseball Original  By Mitchell Nathanson (University of Nebraska Press)

Speaking of Bouton…He certainly didn’t have Hall of Fame numbers, but Bouton’s contributions -for better or worse- might be even more important than Mays’. I had long been curious about ‘Ball Four’, published by Bouton and New York journalist Leonard Shecter in 1970 and considered the seminal “tell-all” of the sports memoir genre. There have been many imitators, each trying to outdo the other with lurid stories of sex and substance abuse. Reading it now, however, some might ask what all the fuss was about? Yet, several literary organizations have included ‘Ball Four’ as one of the most important books -period- of the 20th century. As Mitchell Nathanson reports in this excellent portrait of an artist as a young, middle-aged, and older man, Bouton was in a league all by himself: thoughtful, curious, unwilling to take much at face value or keep his mouth shut. This immediately set him apart from his fellow athletes in the late ’50s and ’60s who looked at him askance, labeling him a flake. While he does a fine job with the before-and-after of Bouton’s life on the field, Nathanson is at his best when he goes over the nuts and bolts of how ‘Ball Four’ came to be and the fallout that followed. Plus, he gets extra kudos for giving Shecter the overdue credit for his part in the project.

Bouton’s creative side had already put him on a track to write a book (as a teenager, he developed an interest in watercolors and jewelry-making). And it is fortunate that he happened to be playing at a time when World, a small publishing company previously known for its books on religion, was looking to build its line of “tell-alls” by athletes, following the success of ‘Instant Replay’ by Jerry Kramer, a member of the Green Bay Packers. But they never could have imagined what Bouton would reveal. “Legacy” is a word often overused, but it is most appropriate in this case. It was a product of its time, of Bouton’s generation, and opened the door for those who tried to copy the formula but would never be as successful.

Intangibles: Unlocking the Science and Soul of Team Chemistry  By Joan Ryan (Little, Brown and Company)

Some might say Mays had “good chemistry” with his teammates while Bouton did not. That is, if you believe such a thing exists. Ever since Michael Lewis’ ‘Moneyball’ came out in 2003, most books that analyze the success of a team for any given season have dealt with cold hard numbers, making it seem like a lesson in math. But according to veteran journalist and author Joan Ryan, it’s science. Ryan, who wrote in various capacities for many years for the San Francisco Chronicle, was a pioneer, becoming one of the first female sports columnists in the country. In ‘Intangibles’, she enlists the help of players, neuroscientists, psychologists, philosophers, and other non-sports types to discern if chemistry is a real thing. Some say yes, others say no. But like placebos, if it works for you, why argue? She cites examples of a number of “archetypes” on a ball club necessary for success, including the joker, the enforcer, the sage, the buddy, the kid, the warrior, and others. (sounds like a recipe for a war or bank heist movie, doesn’t it?). Ryan focuses on two examples of seemingly opposite “elements”: Jonny Gomes, an itinerant utilityman who played for seven major league outfits over a 13-year career, and Barry Bonds, the nominal all-time home run king. Although just a lifetime .248 hitter, Gomes was an integral component wherever he played; the author’s recounting of his Boston Red Sox comrades demanding his inclusion in the starting lineup for a crucial game in the 2013 World Series is reminiscent of a similar scenario in the movie Rudy. On the other end of the spectrum we have Bonds, the seven-time NL MVP who was often characterized as “a cancer in the locker room.” Ryan refutes such a notion, claiming that Bonds made everyone around him better, making us reconsider the definition of “good chemistry.” It’s a fascinating look at the clockworks of the clubhouse, although baseball is not the sole sport in her book.

Baseball Card Vandals: Over 200 Decent Jokes on Worthless Cards  By Beau Abbott and Bryan Abbott (Chronicle)

As I was looking through various sites in an attempt to buy the 2020 Topps set, I came across an old friend: 'Baseball Card Vandals', the brainchild of brothers Beau and Bryan Abbott. I discovered these guys, with their irreverent take on a beloved piece of American culture, several years ago. Like a lot of things, especially on the internet, it was hot and heavy for a while until the next one came along. How nice, then, to be reminded of the fun of BCV thanks to this collection. It seems like such a childishly simple concept. Just pick a fun, weird, or lively card (the authors keep the valuable ones and kibitz with the commons), play on the athlete’s name or some other theme and, well, vandalize it. The artists obviously put a good deal of thought into these things. Just the kind of light-hearted fluff we need at a time like this.

Ron Kaplan’s written books and reviews can be found on his website www.ronkaplansbaseballbookshelf.com

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