This season’s crop of new baseball books offers some revealing journalism that leads readers onto the sport’s less traveled basepaths. Meanwhile, notable bios in the lineup incorporate some of the game’s most compelling history into their pages.
Calling the shots
Bruce Weber’s As They See ’Em: A Fan’s Travels in the Land of Umpires might be the most original piece of reportage on the baseball front in years. While so much of the baseball literature is invested in the achievements of the players, Weber goes another—and totally refreshing—route, getting the inside dope on the lives and careers of umpires. Seemingly taken for granted and tolerated as a necessary evil, umpires are a critical part of the game, yet the culture and economics of the profession, as Weber so keenly chronicles, are generally second-rate. While players routinely become millionaires, most umpires spend their lives in the minor leagues, with slim chances for advancement to the major leagues. They suffer years of unglamorous travel with no guarantee of financial payoff, all the while enduring verbal abuse from fans, players and managers, as well as the indifference of league executives who hire and fire them. The umpire’s life is a solitary one, and as part of his homework, Weber actually enrolls in a noted umpiring school, gains some hard-won expertise, and travels to Podunks across America watching his newfound brethren at work. Later, Weber pulls a Plimpton-like, fantasy-fulfillment stint as third-base ump at a major league exhibition game. Throughout, the author charts umpiring history, profiles some of the legendary practitioners, explains recent labor disputes and attempts to clarify some famous on-the-field incidents, whenever possible conducting firsthand interviews to get the stories behind the controversial calls. â€©
Major stories from the minor leagues
In a similar vein, Matt McCarthy’s Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound with a Minor League Misfit draws readers into the small-town world of baseball’s minor leagues, but comes at it from the POV of the struggling young player. In 2002, author McCarthy was a talented pitcher at Yale, good enough to enter the Anaheim Angels’ farm system. McCarthy winds up in a rookie league in Provo, Utah, surrounded by Mormons in the stands and, in the clubhouse, an eclectic collection of teammates, including coddled, high-priced bonus babies, blue-collar wannabes, colorful dudes with vague moral compasses and also Latin players who speak very little English. Heading up the team is veteran minor league manager Tom Kotchman, who emerges as a lovably eccentric baseball lifer on a par with some of the comical characters the world met in Jim Bouton’s classic Ball Four some 40 years ago. McCarthy only lasts the one season, then gets his walking papers for good at spring training 2003. McCarthy’s memoir was drawn from diary entries, and his recollections have been disputed by some the individuals he played with, but the entries are absorbing, including his encounters with a fair number of players who have since made the grade at the major league level.
Straw: Finding My Way, co-authored with John Strausbaugh, tells the life story of former outfielder Darryl Strawberry, who, after excellent years with the Mets in the 1980s—including a World Series championship in 1986—eventually had to confront many demons. Son of an abusive alcoholic father, Strawberry traversed some very dark personal roads—drugs (all kinds), sex, paternity suits, chaotic marriages, run-ins with police—then watched physical injury take a toll on his baseball career. He attempted comebacks, and even had success in the ’90s with the Yankees, but not before he was stricken with colon cancer, which he has battled courageously. This book functions rather as Strawberry’s attempt to make his peace with friends, relatives and God, while working his way to a cathartically gained perspective on both his failures and his commitment to a more responsible life.
Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee is a biography of another kind: that of a beloved baseball legend who conducted himself in exemplary fashion both on and off the field. Born into a modest Italian-American immigrant home in St. Louis in 1925, Berra showed promise early on but World War II interrupted his minor-league career. Serving in the Navy—and seeing duty at the Normandy landings on D-Day—Berra eventually joined the New York Yankees in 1946 and began a spectacular Hall of Fame career as a catcher and outfielder. Journalist Allen Barra’s book is the first full-bodied accounting of Berra’s life, and, along the way, he essentially tells the story of the great Yankee teams of the 1950s and ’60s. He also covers Yogi’s managerial stints (which met with mixed results) and opines on his subject’s famous penchant for originating colorful aphorisms. Many archival photos cover every area of Yogi’s life.
An overlooked legend
Michael D’Antonio’s Forever Blue: The True Story of Walter O’Malley, Baseball’s Most Controversial Owner, and the Dodgers of Brooklyn and Los Angeles is a well-researched book that covers the life of the late owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers and also recalls the pivotal events that led to his moving the team from Brooklyn to the West Coast in 1957. O’Malley is a key historical baseball figure, but heretofore not much has been known about him by the general reading public. A lawyer involved originally in the Dodgers’ finances, he took controlling ownership of the franchise in 1950, fielding some great teams, including the 1955 squad that defeated the Yankees in the World Series. O’Malley was vilified by Brooklynites with the move to Los Angeles, but D’Antonio’s account implies that O’Malley’s apparently sincere attempts to keep the team in Flatbush were thwarted by competing commercial interests and stodgy city officials, which eventually forced him to seek greener pastures for “Dem Bums.” D’Antonio writes consistently well, and his book fills an important gap in baseball history.
Martin Brady blogs about sports at Sports Media America.