There are certain years that trigger immediate associations in any baseball fan’s mind. 1903: the first World Series. 1927: Murderer’s Row. 1961: Mantle and Maris. 1994: the players’ strike. Whether 2014 will produce such a season is yet to be written, but a tremendous crop of baseball books guarantees this year to be one for the publishing annals.
Is there any more complicated figure in the modern baseball era than Pete Rose? Consider the brief of Kostya Kennedy, author of the magnificent new biography Pete Rose: An American Dilemma. Those with even casual baseball knowledge are familiar with the outline: “Charlie Hustle,” Cincinnati Reds stalwart, the man who always slid headfirst and who attained the Major League record for base hits, is evicted from the game—as well as from eligibility for the Hall of Fame—for betting on those Reds while serving as their manager. Kennedy takes that familiar story and delves deeper, presenting an artful portrait of the blue-collar world Rose came from, the dream world he ascended to and the bizarre world he slipped into after his banishment.
In doing so, Kennedy touches on a theme well beyond baseball: the inherent contradictions of human nature. How could someone who willed himself to the top of his profession with such clarity of purpose throw away his legacy with such singular dissipation? The tragic element of Rose’s life—his ability to bend circumstances to his will in one context yet to lose all sense of rationality in another—is stuff worthy of Shakespeare. Kennedy handles it just fine, though. For the market, the book is pitched as a re-evaluation of Rose’s fate now that baseball has suffered though steroids, arguably a graver sin than gambling. Kennedy doesn’t break new factual ground or suggest “answers” so much as refocus the question. And he presents a compelling case that whether Rose deserves his lifetime suspension should be evaluated separately from whether he should be eligible for the Hall. It’s interesting enough material for the baseball reader, but the appeal of this book goes further. With writing of such quality and a subject of such complexity, it deserves to be read by anyone who appreciates good biography.
No baseball book in recent memory has been as uproarious as They Called Me God, written by legendary umpire Doug Harvey with an assist from longtime sportswriter Peter Golenbock. Harvey, one of only nine umpires in the Hall of Fame and considered by many—including himself—to be one of the best of all time, worked the National League from 1962 to 1992. Stylistically, the book is a marvel, particularly while recounting Harvey’s origins. Its staccato style and fatalistic tone are on par with classic noir. Take, for example, this setup: “The regulars had been drinking, I’d had a few myself, and I was sitting there wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life.” Or this meditation on his professional plight: “There was just one perfect umpire, and they put him on the cross.” I won’t spoil any more gems.
The book is billed as a tell-all. No kidding. Man, does Harvey settle some scores. His first wife, coaches who disrespected him, cheating pitchers and the league officials who enabled them—no one, it seems, is safe. But the book is written with such good humor and honest feeling that you can hardly begrudge Harvey these takedowns. Harvey only blows one call, so to speak, by including a painfully awkward story about the late umpire Eric Gregg that should not have seen the printed page. That aside, the book offers refreshing insight into an umpire’s world, and with considerable panache.
FROM THE FRIENDLY CONFINES
About 20 years ago, the band the Mountain Goats produced a tune called “Cubs in Five.” The title was a joke—the song is about stuff that is unlikely to happen—but it encapsulates nicely the futility of rooting for Chicago’s National League squad. Even if renowned columnist and Bunts author George F. Will hasn’t heard the song, he gets the sentiment, as is apparent from his latest baseball foray, A Nice Little Place on the North Side: Wrigley Field at One Hundred.
Appropriately for a topic as inherently funny as the Cubs, Will takes a droll approach. In about the amount of time it takes to soak in a ballgame, the reader is treated to a romp through Cubs history, from the origins of Wrigley Field up to the Steve Bartman debacle. As this is George Will, there’s a dollop of evolutionary psychology and economics on the side, though nothing much heavier than an Old Style.
About that field. The title evokes it, and it is the focus of the book’s thesis: that the beauty of the ballpark is in large part responsible for the consistently poor quality of the product on the diamond. Will has discovered, through the work of some authors he cites, that ticket sales at Wrigley bear a smaller-than-normal correlation to the team’s record and actually are more sensitive to the price of a beer in the stadium than the cost of admission. By providing a good place to watch baseball, Will hypothesizes, management has relieved itself of the need to provide a good baseball team. At least the theory has the virtue of explaining the otherwise inexplicable phenomenon that is the Cubs.
BACK TO THE MINORS
Every kid dreams of hitting a game-winning homer in the World Series. No kid dreams of hitting anything at all for the Montgomery Biscuits. That, in a nutshell, is the idea behind John Feinstein’s Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball, a thorough and enjoyable profile of the players, coaches, umpires, radio announcers and pretty much everyone else besides the peanut vendors who are associated with minor league baseball. By focusing on eight different people over the course of the 2012 season, Feinstein ably shows how the tantalizing promise of working in the bigs—not to mention the attendant compensation and creature comforts—shapes the lives of those who are still down on the farm. The book has a nice pace: casual and a little rambling, though a bit repetitive at times and with lags here and there. Not so different, come to think of it, than a midsummer Double-A tilt.