When the season ends and I can no longer cozy up to an audio device to hear a baseball game, I cozy up to a book. This off-season, I got around to reading or rereading several baseball books that had been accumulating in the various piles of books that have been collecting dust around Chez Kovach.
While the lockout lingers, I’ll share my thoughts on several pockets of dead trees and the author’s sweat that I consumed.
First up were two books to prepare for a possible labor stoppage.
Unions, Work Stoppages, and a Split Season. Oh My!
I started Jeff Katz’s “Split Season 1981” after Atlanta claimed the World Series Championship. The well-researched book benefits from having many participants able to add insights. The book is not just about the labor troubles in 1981 that led to a split season. Katz includes Pete Rose breaking Stan Musial’s National League hit record. Fernandomania gets revisited and his impact on baseball in LA and worldwide. The battle between the MLBPA’s Marvin Miller and MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn remains the book’s central theme. The league agreed to play the season under the previous CBA, but unhappy with the progress, the players voted to strike by July. Indeed, this was in the back of the owner’s mind this year. Despite that split season, 1981 was a tremendously exciting season and well worth learning about.
Charles B. Korr’s 2002 book “The End of Baseball as We Knew It.” dives into the creation of the Players Union. Mr. Kobb is a historian and researcher that had direct access to Marvin Miller and the union’s records. The book focuses on the years from 1960 and 1981. The research shows throughout the book. All of the stories you have heard before — Curt Flood, Andy Messersmith, Dave McNally, etc. — are there. These add to the entire narrative of the union’s birth and first battles against the league, owners, front office, and coaches. “Split Season” would have benefited from reading this book first. This book will let you know if you want to see how the union thinks.
Let’s Go Back to the ’80s!
Baseball history is not all doom and gloom. Fun, exciting stories litter baseball. This off-season, I decided to reread three anecdotal baseball books first published in the ’80s.
If you don’t know who Ron Luciano is, you should. A standout college football player, drafted by the Detroit Lions, Luciano was quickly injured and looking for a job to stay near the field. He found his way to umpire camp, got a minor league job, and made it to the MLB. He tells his story in his book, “The Umpire Strikes Back.” The book covers Luciano’s stories about being an umpire, being involved in an umpire’s strike, leaving the game, and becoming a baseball announcer. Along the way, he fought with Earl Weaver, and Weaver fought back. Luciano can lay claim to ejecting Weaver from games on all levels in baseball, including both games of a doubleheader! He would go on to write four more books.
Bob Uecker’s “Catcher in the Wry” actually got me in trouble in school. As nearly every high school student in my time, I was tasked reading and writing a book report on J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye.” So, yeah, I choose the baseball book with the guy on the funny beer commercials. I got an A on the report AND spent a week of detention doing an essay on the “right” book. Worth it! “Catcher in the Wry” is what one would expect from Bob Uecker: a laugh-a-minute tour of this time in baseball. If you are as frustrated with the state of baseball today, give yourself a window of pleasure—my “When Uecker Owned Koufax” write is coming soon.
The last of my trip through the ’80s has a slightly different twist. Instead of following the stories of a ballplayer, “Safe at Home” was written by Sharon Hargrove. Yep, the wife of Mike, “The Human Rain Delay” Hargrove. The book, published in 1989, chronicled the Hargroves’ life in baseball. The tribulations of high school sweethearts and starting a family while growing together through the minor leagues to the majors. At 24 years old, Mike was the American League Rookie of the Year in 1974 with the Texas Rangers. His playing career ended in 1985, the last seven seasons with Cleveland.
After a year off, the Hargroves were back in the minors in 1987, Sharon supporting Mike’s desire to give coaching a try. The book ends before Mike is named the manager of Cleveland in 1991. The book is interesting, not just getting a completely different view of baseball but also how the Hargroves decided to stay in baseball and start helping younger players and their spouses on their journey towards the major leagues.
Pitchers with Skills of the Field
I didn’t get to read any new biographies this year, but I did revisit two. Since I have been researching no-hitters quite a bit, I had to take the time to reread Scott H. Longert’s “Addie Joss: King of the Pitchers.” The book is short, under 100 pages, but covers Addie’s career from Wisconsin to Toledo and eventually to Cleveland. Scott, the Sports Archivist for the Western Reserve Historical Society and fellow graduate of Cleveland State University, knows his Cleveland baseball history.
One of the most challenging tasks in learning about Deadball era players is the limited media to research. You have various newspapers, books, and the occasional magazine, and if you are lucky, maybe some oral history of old-timers talking about the past. Scott hunted those sources down and did a great job presenting the information about Addie Joss, the MLB Hall of Famer you never knew. Pick up the book, and you’ll not only find out about Addie but a good bit of Deadball era baseball history as well.
In a dusty section of a local used bookstore, I found a copy of “Addie Joss on Baseball.” An off-season job of Addie’s was as the Sunday Sports Editor for the Toledo Bee newspaper. He also wrote articles for the Cleveland Press, including the game day pieces for the World Series in 1907, 1908, and 1909. He was a good writer, touching on a wide range of subjects. One article touches on the legitimacy of the less than a decade old American League as a “Major League.” He wrote on nineteenth-century baseball, league players, and personal anecdotes from his career. His articles were much like books by Luciano and Uecker, except written while he was a player!
My other biography was by another pitcher, who also had talents off the field. Dave Baldwin could have been the next Bob Feller. In his book “Snake Jazz”, he describes how he reached that level, prevailed through an injury in college, played professional baseball from 1959 to 1974, and even experimented with the spitter. Baldwin earned a Ph.D. in genetics and an M.S. in Systems Engineering during his playing career. He published articles in The Harvard Business Review and American Scientist. If that isn’t enough, he is also a painter. Dave’s book is an interesting take of an unusual person. One that just happened to play baseball.
Cleveland is Still Cursed!
Every year I try to read a book that local Cleveland writer Terry Pluto has written. Terry has written for many Cleveland newspapers and currently writes about the Guardians, Browns, and Cavs for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He has written a history of the ABA called “Loose Balls” and co-authored “Weaver on Strategy” with Earl Weaver and has many books about Cleveland Sports.
In “The Curse of Rocky Colavito,” Terry turns his eye to the trade of Rocky Colavito that threw Cleveland baseball into a thirty-year slump. Starting with the loss of Colavito, he talks about losing players. Ken Harrelson left Cleveland to join the Pro Golf Tour. Tony Horton had a nervous breakdown. When Dennis Eckersley’s wife fell in love with Dennis’ teammate Rick Manning, forcing the Indians to trade one of them. They didn’t pick well. They moved Dennis to Boston and kept Rick. Super Joe Charboneau won an AL Rookie of the Year Award and flamed out three years later. Want to hear about the good, bad, and ugly of Cleveland baseball? Terry has you covered. He a gem, and Cleveland is lucky to have him.
Bob Feller’s Little Black Book and Physics
In his “Little Black Book of Baseball Wisdom,” Bob Feller, with help from Burton Rocks, drops bits of wisdom on baseball and life separated into four parts: Good Foundations, My Baseball Days, Building Good Players, and Philosophies on Baseball and Life. Published in 2001, Bob was in his eighties when he put this book together. One can also read his respect for his peers, from Ted Williams to Satchel Paige. This love shows up in his writing, but his tone has a certain “old fogey-ism.” But getting insight into baseball from one of the baseball legends is a good excuse to move your eyes from the screen to a book. Even if he does occasionally yell at you to get off his lawn.
I saw on Twitter that Dr. Alan Nathon, the Physics of Baseball Guy, was going to review and offer some modern insights into Robert K. Adair’s “The Physics of Baseball.” First published in 1990, the title explains the book perfectly. A Yale Physics professor breaks down the physics of baseball. Yes, there is math. If you want to understand launch angles, spin rates, and many of the new metrics available to baseball now, you should also know HOW they happen. Adair covers the flight of the ball and the swing of the bat. He looks into pitching and batting while examining bats, running, fielding, and throwing. Much is still relevant today and easy to understand. Well, as easy as some advanced physics concepts can be. Okay, you might need to check out a “Physics for Dummies” from your local library to help you. But, there is a lockout. You’ve got the time now!
Commissioners That Loved Baseball?!?!
My last two books were recent reads to help save me from radial cynicism against the commissioner’s office. I remember when MLB Commissioners LOVED baseball (the game, not the business).
“The Only Game in Town: Baseball Stars of the 1930s and 1940s Talk About the Game They Loved” was not entirely written by former MLB Commish Fay Vincent. The book is mainly transcripts from oral histories of baseball players. While Fay Vincent did write some introductions, he also helped start The Baseball Oral History Project to collect, create, and organize oral histories in conjunction with the Baseball Hall of Fame. History directly from the player’s mouth. Buck O’Neil and Monte Irvin mixed in with Larry Doby, Bob Feller, Warren Spahn, and more. I’m grateful to Fay Vincent for making a project like this available. Once again, there is a lockout. Read this!
Renaissance scholar, former President of Yale, former President of the National League, and MLB Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti’s “Take Time for Paradise: Americans and Their Games” was published posthumously in 1989. Giamatti references Aristotle, Milton, Henry Vaughan, and an earlier book he wrote, “The Earthly Paradise and the Renaissance Epic.” This book may not be for everybody. Giamatti takes a philosophical approach in weaving the argument that you can tell the values of a society from who it chooses to spend its play or leisure time. Two-thirds of the book develops his views that self-knowledge and community, in the modern-day, have turned sports into a shared moment of leisure, including participants and fans.
We may hold very different views, yet sports allows us to share moments when we ignore those differences and invest in the freedoms that our society enjoys. One can enjoy a game just because your fantasy player did great, yet his team lost the game. One can celebrate a victory even if everybody else in your family hates the team YOU root for. A fan base can root against an opposing team’s players and still show support if that player has a devastating injury. Players can be rivals and still compete together in an All-Star game. After developing his arguments, Giamatti then states that baseball is the only game that genuinely demonstrates American values in those shared moments of leisure. Don’t worry; I plan a more extensive write-up in “A Renaissance Plan to Fix Baseball,” coming soon.
If it is instructive as well as pleasurable to think about how America produces and consumes its leisure, then I believe thinking about baseball will tell us about ourselves as people. Such thoughts will test two propositions. The first is that baseball, in all its dimensions, best mirrors the condition of freedom for Americans that Americans ever guard and aspire to. The second proposition is that because baseball simulates and stimulates the condition of freedom, Americans identify the game with the country. Even those indifferent to baseball, or country, or those scorn them, at some level know them. The rest of us love them.
This man loved baseball, not Major League Baseball, but baseball. The game. Baseball was not simply a business; it was the game that defined us as Americans, how things have changed. We can, and should, use his argument to find the cracks in the game today. More specifically, Giamatti gives us a path to demand change. Foremost, we need people shaping baseball who genuinely love the game. We have lost this, and it must come back.
In nearly all the baseball books I read this off-season, the critical point is a love of baseball. I’m not sure that is because of the books I tend to be drawn towards or simply because those who write about baseball do so because they love it. Given Giamatti’s arguments, I want to believe it is the latter.
Got a book recommendation? Let me know. If the lockout drags on too long, expect a PitcherList book club! (Now that should be a reason to end the lockout soon!)
Photo by Mat Kovach/PitcherList | Adapted by Michael Packard (@artbyMikeP on Twitter & IG)