Friday, July 20, 2012

Book Review Collection: OK Baseball Books

Having just finished R.A. Dickey's autobiography, I wanted to collect the reviews of baseball books that I've read over the years.  When I went to my source material, I found that although I've really enjoyed some baseball books, there have been some that I could only recommend with qualifications.  So before I get to the good ones, I'll tell you about the baseball books I've read that are really, really ok (or worse).
Dan Barry, Bottom of the 33rd; Hope, Redemption and Baseball's Longest Game, 2011 (read July 2011)
Having attended a Pawtucket Red Sox game a few years ago, I was aware that the longest professional baseball game had been played there.  Then I heard Dan Barry on Bill Simmons's podcast and was excited to read the book.  So excited, in fact, that I turned off the podcast so that it wouldn't spoil the book for me.  The timing of that game - April 1981 - made reading this book more enjoyable for me because I followed the Red Sox (major league club) most closely while living in New Hampshire from 1980-84.  Many of the players on the Pawtucket roster for this fateful game came up to the big club and became household names (at least in our household).  Barry's book is good but not great.  Predictably, the account of what actually happened in the game would make a long magazine article.  To stretch the story to book length, he provides deep background on the players, coaches, owner, Pawtucket civic leaders and even many of the fans who stuck out the long innings.  One feels like those fans must have felt as the narrative drags on and on about that which went before and came after this game while you wait to find out how the game is going to actually end.  Barry succumbs to an old school sports-writerly floweriness at times.  I suppose he's allowed some license when meditating on the philosophical timelessness built into baseball's rules, but it gets a little over the top in places.  I would recommend this book to baseball fans and those with an affinity for the Boston Red Sox, the Pawtucket Red Sox the Batimore Orioles and the Rochester Red Wings in particular.  It's not for everybody, though.

Jim Bouton, Ball Four, 1970, (read August 2011)
My father had this book on his shelf the whole time I was growing up, so I was aware of it.  When it came up on Bill Simmons's list of the best sports books of all time, I decided to go for it.  Bouton was a formerly-great pitcher trying to hang on in baseball in 1969 as a knuckleballer with the expansion Seattle Pilots.  Always a clubhouse outsider, he decided to take notes through the season and write a book.  He would like the reader to believe that he's an outsider because he's an intellectual in a game that favors lugheadedness.  While this may partially explain his status, he's not helped in his quest to be "one of the boys" by the fact that he's a world class jerk.  He's cocky and more than willing to make life difficult for coaches, front office personnel and his teammates.  At the time, the book caused a scandal because the baseball clubhouse and the after-game shenanigans of ballplayers had been secret sanctums.  Bouton exposed it all and got kind of blackballed from baseball for it.  Now, the media exposes things like he wrote about routinely, and this narrative seems quite tame by comparison.  It does give the fan a chance to look inside the game and understand what it was like (in a simpler baseball world) for a player to go to the park each day, to deal with bouncing between the Majors and the Minors, and to deal with trades, both from a personal standpoint and a baseball standpoint.  He went on at 10-year intervals to publish Ball 5, 6 and 7, extended epilogues to the original text.  In those, as life after baseball throws some curveballs at him (sorry), he gets a little more human.   It's a canonical book, but the true baseball fan will enjoy it more than the average civilian.

Tim McCarver and Danny Peary, Baseball for Brain Surgeons and Other Fans, 1998, (read July 2000)
This book came on the recommendation (and generous lending of her copy) of my baseball-loving friend Katherine Stikkers.  McCarver writes from the perspectives of being a Major League catcher with several teams and now a broadcaster.  I don't watch games that he calls enough to have formed an opinion on McCarver, but I know there are fans who don't like him.  One way that the book met Katherine's description of it was in sheer information overload.  McCarver goes into painstaking detail on strategic points of several aspects of the game from pitching to base running to hitting.  Sprinkled into his strategic commentary are rewarding contemporary examples and war stories from his playing days.  The book could have been trimmed by fifty pages and should come with a companion set of laminated cards simplifying McCarver's points for use at the ballpark.  Serious baseball fans who watch a lot of games on TV would probably get the most from this book, but I find myself recommending it to the casual fan in hopes that it will convert them into hard core goners.  In truth, the book (and baseball fandom) may not be for everybody. 

Ross Bernstein, The Code: Baseball's Unwritten Rules and Its Ignore-at-Your-Own-Risk Code of Conduct, 2008, (read January 2011)
Although this book was published in 2008, it started popping up various places in my environment in late 2010. The title and premise rock. The book...not so much. Start with the author bragging about the 30 sports books he's written in the last 20 years. That reminds me of a Pennsylvania winery I visited that produced 54 wines, none of them quite drinkable. The good Mr. Bernstein takes the volume approach. He also starts the book with three forewords by current or former baseball players. I love baseball and baseball players, but three forewords on the topic of the game's unwritten code by player types produce an unappealing drumbeat of repetition about respect and not throwing at guys' heads. It's not as if the book itself isn't littered with player quotes. Bernstein interviewed lots of people. While I admire his hard work, I wish he hadn't showed quite so much of it. The narrative, especially early on, is interrupted as much as five times on a page by block quotes in gray boxes. Obviously, players, managers and umpires have to be the source, but take a little more time and weave them into a narrative. Some of the block quotes are more than a page long. For good measure, he gives the last word to a player, block quoting Dave Winfield, saying something that doesn't really put a button on all that went before. I don't know if it's good or bad policy, but Bernstein saves his best stuff for last. The stuff about throwing at guys gets dull and goes on a long time. Summary: throw at guys when they "disrespect" you or a teammate or the game; don't throw at guys' heads. Second summary: throwing at a guy is easy, and it is really difficult. The stuff about bench-clearing brawls is better. Where he really shines, though, is in talking about stealing signs. The best part of that material, though, focuses less on the code and more on how signs work, which I, as a fan, didn't really know. I wanted more out of this book. Perhaps John Feinstein could rewrite it from Bernstein's notebook (which it felt like I was reading anyway) and come up with a worthy book.

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