Monday, January 20, 2014

Spring Training Reading

  With the days getting longer, and the pitchers and catchers less than a month from reporting, we usually start our own Spring Training by re-reading a couple of our favourite baseball books:

  We usually start with the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract.  Even though our copy is over 20 years old (really need to put the new one on our  Christmas list one year), James' decade-by-decade tracing of the origins of the game provide concise insights into how the game was played, and how it slowly transformed over the past century-plus.  James is also a huge fan of the minors, and is an excellent chronicler of its history and contribution to the game.
   James' prose, in our opinion, is vastly underrated.  Here's a pair of gems from the biographies section (perhaps our favourite part of the book).  On Hal Chase, the early 1900s 1st baseman who gambling scandals seemed to follow around, James wrote:

    "Could he really have existed, or was he perhaps invented by Robert Lewis Stevenson?…there is some evidence that he appeared in the flesh, but I lean more toward the invention theory… what mother, if she/he was real, what Rosemary, could have given birth to such a creature?…There is an evil, a smallness, lust, and greed that lives inside all of us.   And the secret of Hal Chase, I believe, was that he was able to reach out and embrace the evil…”

   About catcher Ernie Lombardi, a prodigious hitter who apparently had a nose to match, James observed:

  "Lombardi was a huge man, with huge, oak-trunk legs and huge feet and huge hands and a promontory with nostrils that protruded from a lumpy face.....As he got older, he acquired a huge belly, which he lugged around with a huge effort.....His knees were too low to the ground, and his center of gravity was about four feet behind him...:

  Of interest in our copy is the section James devotes to his measures of quantitative analysis, which seem kind of antiquated in this day of advanced metrics.  It's interesting to read the work of one of the pioneers of the sabrmetric movement just the same. Offensive Winning Percentage seems pretty quaint when compared to UZR or WAR.

   If reading James' work is the equivalent of doing some light jogging and stretching, Roger Kahn's Good Enough to Dream, is like playing some long toss in the outfield.
   Good Enough to Dream is Kahn's account of his year at the helm of the Utica Blue Sox, an independent team full of cast-offs from other organizations, in the New-York Penn League in 1983.
   Kahn, who covered the Dodgers in the early 50s, and turned his reminisces and recollections about that colourful group of characters into the highly acclaimed The Boys of Summer, was president and majority shareholder of the Blue Sox, who played in antiquated Murnane Field.  Kahn and his daughter moved to Utica for the summer, and he became a very hands-on owner with the club.
   We won't spoil the plot for you, but we found the day-to-day life of a minor league club full of players that nobody wanted to be fascinating.  With Kahn offering a first person view of the ups and downs of a minor league club, we felt like we were right there along with him for the roller coaster ride of a season.
   Truth be told, we preferred Good Enough to Dream to The Boys of Summer, likely because we weren't around when the Boys were in their prime, and we dog-eared every page with examples of Kahn's memorable prose.  Before long, the book was full of dog-eared pages.  This passage from Good Enough summarizes the effect his Utica summer had on the author:

"I knew that this was a low minor league pennant race, being played out in Jefferson County, an obscure and impoverished corner of New York State with no national media, no television cameramen paying attention. But I was stirred, as John Lardner used to put it, clear to my ganglia."

   My spring warm-up now in full swing, I turn at this point to Pat Jordan's A False Spring.  Jordan was originally a bonus baby in the days of high bonuses for high schoolers in the late 1950s, before the June draft was instituted.

  Again, being careful not to reveal too much of the plot,  Jordan was a keen observer of minor league life around him in his odyssey across America.  He showed considerable insight into the thoughts and actions of others through lengthy narrative passages like this:

   With time they would discover that their experience had marked them off from their contemporaries who, no matter how talented, had never gone to spring training, never, even for a week, been a professional athlete. It was as if they had been privy to a vision, had been blessed with a divine grace that would always remain a mystery to the unblessed. They learned to play to this grace, to build around it myths about that experience, which, to them, had been no big thing at the time. They had seen no mysteries, but they did not let on. They took pleasure even in the manner in which their town's sports-wise people now referred to them: "He was the boy who went away." Vague, yet oddly precise. The boy who went away—that was all anyone knew. He had gone away and then come back and whatever had occurred in between only he knew. It elevated him. He floated above those whose talents would forever be circumscribed by the fact that they had never gone away. Of such a stay-at-home people would say, "He was good. The best around. But who knows for sure? He never went away."

   Jordan proved, in the end, to have considerable insight into everything and everyone but himself, and by the time he had gained this self-awareness, his career was beyond salvaging.  His observations of daily life in the low minors is precious just the same, and with the golden age of the minors coming to an end, and vast changes in store for America on the horizon, Jordan gives us a glimpse of American society at that time, a time that was about to disappear forever.

   Finally, like a starter approaching the end of spring training, we're ready to stretch out a bit.  Jim Bouton's Ball Four was the first "insider" book to truly tell it like it was.  Bouton spared no details, from tales of managment's penury, to the use of amphetamines ("greenies") by players, and the sex life of a mjaor league ballplayer.  His was the first "tell all," and in many ways, it's still the best.
  As a marginal relief pitcher throwing the knuckleball on an expansion team nobody cared about, Bouton's diary of his 1969 season (and recollections of his time with the Yankees at the end of their glory years in the early 60s) shocked the sports world.  Sparing no details, Bouton became an overnight celebrity in the media, and a virtual pariah in the sports world.  Legendary baseball writer Dick Young of the New York Daily News called Bouton a "social leper" for breaking the longheld supposed sanctity of the clubhouse.  "Fuck You, Shakespeare!" yelled Pete Rose from the top step of the Reds' dugout.  Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, in one of the books' mroe hilarious passages, tried (unsuccessfully) to get Bouton to admit publicly that the book was all just one huge bunch of lies.  
  There were many parents (including ours) in the early 1970s who were concerned about the impact the book would have on impressionable youngsters, and forbade them to read it.  This only made us more eager to secretly read it with a flashlight under the covers late at night, and became the first true "adult" length book that we ever read from cover to cover.  And while some of the tales were a little wild for small town young minds, kids are remarkably resilient, and able to put things into perspective, and that was the case for us.  Far from corrupting us, the book made us want to work that much harder to make a life in baseball, because Bouton made it seem like so much fun.
   Bouton wrote a seqeul to Ball Four, the less popular but still enjoyable I'm Glad You Didn't Take it Personally, the title of which was taken from Bouton's first encounter with Young in New York after Ball Four was published.  Bouton made a comeback with the Braves in 1979, and a chapter about that episode was added in a 1981 revision, then another was added in the 20th anniversary edition, and then a final chapter was included Ball Four: The Final Pitch, which was published in 2001.  In this last tome, Bouton catches readers up on the post-baseball events of his life, including (finally) being inivted to Yankee Stadium for Old Timers Day, after years of being ignored, and the tragic death of his daughter, who along with Bouton's other kids seemed like family to us after reading Ball Four.
   In 1996, the New York Public Library named Ball Four one of its Top 100 Books of the Twentieth Century.  No other sports book made the list. 

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