Posts Tagged ‘sports books

22
Oct
14

When Canada Had Just One MLB Team: Up, Up and Away – Jonah Keri

Up, Up, and Away: The Kid, the Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, le Grand Orange, Youppi!, the Crazy Business of Baseball, and the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal ExposUp, Up, and Away: The Kid, the Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, le Grand Orange, Youppi!, the Crazy Business of Baseball, and the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos by Jonah Keri

For a while, Montreal was the baseball capital of North America: a state-of-the-art stadium, a core of bright young talent and the base farm system in baseball. And then, on a cold and rainy afternoon, it all started crashing down.

 

But the Montreal Expos are so much more than crushing heartbreak. They’re a team with a colourful history and even more colourful roster, and Jonah Keri’s newish book Up Up And Away is as definitive an account of them as we have.

 

When the team departed for Washington in 2005, the Expos were a shell of a franchise. They’d been owned by Major League Baseball for a couple of seasons and had traded away whatever assets they possessed. Their stadium was an empty shell, a boondoggle that still wasn’t paid off nearly 30 years after it’s completion. It wasn’t always that way: at two different times, they’d been the best team in baseball. With a rich stock of young talent, they’d been called both the team of the 80s and the 90s. It just wasn’t meant to be.

 

Up Up and Away is a fun history of the team, charting it’s auspicious beginnings in less-than-stellar confines of Jerry Park through a last-gasp 2003 pennant run in a decaying Olympic Stadium. Keri tells of early Expos stars like Rusty Staub, famously known as le grand orange, and their auspicious beginning, with a no-hitter thrown just a handful of games into their existence.

 

After a few dry years, Keri dives into the first glory years when the Expos farm system developed a bevy of talent: Ellis Valentine, Warren Cromartie, Tim Raines and Carter, currently the only Expo in Cooperstown. These were the glory years of the team, but they were ill-timed: their peak coincided with two of the best teams in baseball history: the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates and the 1980 Philadelphia Phillies.

 

While 1981 brought their first NLCS appearance, it also brought in their biggest heartbreak: Blue Monday. Keri departs from his narrative to offer an oral history on the Expos most infamous game, where they lost a heartbreaker at home in the deciding game of the NLCS. It was as close as the Expos would ever get to the World Series and arguably the team’s high-water mark.

 

As far as heartbreak goes, the Expos had a lot of it: crushing late-season collapses, team-clearing firesales and clubhouse issues. Sometimes it was outside forces: in 1994, they were the best team in baseball, thanks to stars like Larry Walker, Pedro Martinez and Marquis Grissom. But when Bud Selig cancelled the World Series on September 14, their 74-40 season was killed.

 

With his status as a die-hard fan, Keri’s book is littered with personal memories: trips to games, hand-painted signs and nearly innumerable heartbreaks. It gives the book a sense of personality but also strips it of objectivity. Call it the Bill Simmons effect: it’s closer to Now I Can Die In Peace than Summer of ’49. Truthfully, though I appreciate his feelings, even if they occasionally distract from an interesting history.

 

Indeed, the book’s best moments come when Keri delivers little asides. These range from how pitcher Steve Rogers remembers Gary Carter to recounting a memorable basebrawl to a history of Expos mascot Youppi!. Unlike the asides in Crazy 08, these add colour to his story, filling in gaps a more traditional approach may overlook. In a nice touch, cartoons from Terry Mosher, Montreal’s resident wit and political cartoonist, are throughout the book.

 

While Aslin’s a nice touch, I can’t help but notice Mordecai Richler’s conspicuous absence: not only was the late novelist one of Montreal’s most distinctive voices, but he was a big baseball fan to boot. Instead, Keri often quotes sports columnists like Michael Farber or Jeff Blair, both of whom haven’t been based in Montreal in years.

 

Some readers may remember Keri’s old sports writing gig at Baseball Prospectus and its worth remembering it when reading this book: Keri never relies on generic statistics like pitcher wins or batting average, preferring to provide a deeper look into the numbers. Hitters get the full triple slash treatment of batting/slugging/on-base while pitchers get ERA and innings pitched.

 

Still, some months after finishing this, I can’t help but question the conclusions Keri reaches for the Expos demise. While the most popular opinion blames Jeff Loria for the team’s rapid decline, as an owner who stripped the team to the minimum, refused to get games on local media and took everything with him when he left, Keri points to other, larger factors. He blames losing a lucrative southern Ontario TV market, a corporate base with no interest in the team and a lack of provincial support for a new stadium.

 

These arguments reframe the debate along the larger issues between Quebec and the rest of Canada. Thinking about it now, I can’t help but think of Barney’s Version, and Barney Panofsky’s bitter memories of the once-great Montreal Canadiens. As Keri lays blame at the Parti Quebecois for driving Montreal businesses out of province, he also sees nothing wrong with Loria’s cash calls that increased his control of the team against cash-strapped co-owners.  These increases allowed him to flip the Expos on the cheap without interference from co-owners. Loria’s conduct with the Marlins has been up the same alley: spend a little as possible, sell high and maximize profit. If baseball is a business, Loria’s a master. And remember, Keri’s not just a baseball fan, he’s also a guy who wrote for the Wall Street Journal.

And while I generally agree with Keri’s arguments, it’s worth comparing Loria to former Canadiens owner George Gillett. Between the time when Gillett bought the Canadiens in 2001 and when he sold them a little over eight years later, he didn’t have nearly the same issues as the Expos did: no cash calls, no stripping everything to the bone, no firesales. While this was a time where the Canadian dollar was at it’s weakest, between 2001 and 2009, the Canadiens went to the playoffs five times. Somehow the same issues that plagued the Expos – losing the Ontario TV market, the PQ, etc – didn’t doom the Canadiens.  But then again, Gillett didn’t have his sights set on getting a team in the US. Funny how that seemed to make all the difference.

 

Rating: 8/10.  Before this past season started, the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Mets played a short preseason series at the Big O, the first time in years pro baseball’s been played in Montreal. By all accounts, the games were a success. Maybe someday, with a little luck, those crowds will come a little more regularly and Keri will need to write a second volume. But for now, I’m glad to have this.

Editor’s note: originally written in May 2014 for The Good Point, but never published. Thanks again to Random House for providing me a review copy!

09
Sep
14

The Bronx Zoo by Sparky Lyle

The Bronx ZooThe Bronx Zoo by Sparky Lyle

1978 was a pretty great year for baseball, especially in New York. The Yankees, down by 14 games in July, roared back and took the AL East pennant in a one-game playoff against Boston. Anyway, if you’re a baseball fan, you probably have some knowledge of that. And here, in The Bronx Zoo, is the other side of that season: what happened off the field, away from the cameras and inside the clubhouse.

Lyle’s book is a wild read, ranging from raunchy clubhouse tales to keen observation. He’ll go from a story about sitting on a cake to pointing out why his pitches aren’t working, sometimes even in the same paragraph. Written as a diary breaking down the season day-by-day (think Ball Four), the season seems to take forever sometimes as losses mount and drama in the front office keeps mounting between Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner, both of whom come off as high-strung, insecure and made for each other.

This team’s packed with personality, too: between the sensitive, and quiet Thurman Munson and the bombastic, publicity-loving Reggie Jackson, this Yankee team just drips with colourful characters. Jackson really steals it as the prototypical 21st Century superstar, always happy to give a sharp quip into the microphone, even if it’s less than truthful (“You guys heard that?” he asks the assembled media after one scathing comment on a radio broadcast, “if I’d known you were listening I’d have said something different.”)

There are the occasional flashes of insight between the day-to-day: Lyle occasionally explains why a pitcher’s pitches aren’t working, the little ways a fielder is making great plays and at the little differences made by a team on a hot streak; there’s also the occasional show of casual ballplayer misogyny, too. And while he’s never removed from the shenanigans in the clubhouse, he’s something of a bemused observer, cataloging the pranks, off-hand comments and tension on one of the most memorable seasons in baseball.

Unfortunately, the book starts to fade near the end. Maybe the work of keeping a diary was too much for Lyle or maybe he just wanted to stay focused on the 1978 playoffs (his line: 1.1 Innings Pitched, 2 Earned Runs, zero strikeouts). I would’ve liked something of a wrap-up, but instead it ends a little abruptly. I think the 2005 edition has a new afterward, but I can’t speak to that.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted my review of Marty Appel’s biography of Thurman Munson. And before that, a post about Jonathan Mahler’s The Bronx Is Burning. In terms of baseball colour, Lyle’s book has them both beat. Munson has flashes of personality, but largely relies on Appel’s memories or long interviews while the best parts of Mahler’s book focus more on politics and the media, not the Yankees. But as a history, The Bronx Zoo isn’t much: it’s a very personal book, almost unconcerned with anyone else. It’s what makes the book stand out from the usual jockish autobiography, a drab 200-page paperback farmed out to a PR rep or beat writer (see: Appel’s first book on Munson). But don’t come here expecting a blow-by-blow look at the AL East in 1978 or anything.

Rating: 7/10. A day-to-day, inside look at one of the most colourful teams in baseball history and hilarious to boot, Sparky Lyle’s memoir of the 1978 season is great. Recommended, especially for Yankee fans.

02
Sep
14

Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain by Marty Appel

Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee CaptainMunson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain – Marty Appel

On a summer afternoon a good 35 years ago, Thurman Munson’s Cessna Citation crashed just outside a Canton, Ohio airport. It was a sudden and dramatic end for one of the most fascinating intervals on one of the most fascinating teams in baseball history.

As a player, Munson represented the gritty everyday kind of persona. He played through injuries, logging time at the demanding role of catcher. Seen in his lifetime, as a gruff, blue-collar, a regular kind of guy, he resonated with a lot of fans. Still does, too.

But Munson was a lot more than that. He came from a broken home, had a keen eye for real estate and business and a sly sense of humour. He was nearly bipolar towards the media: he could spend entire seasons barely talking to reporters, but would offer to fly one across the country so they could see their family.

It’s too bad only glimpses of this man come across in Marty Appel’s biography. But maybe Munson was too elusive, too private to really be open to anyone, even the man who co-wrote his autobiography.

Appel had a unique relationship with his subject. For most of the 1970s, Appel was Public Relations director for the Yankees. And in 1978, he worked with Munson on his autobiography. Appel has sources and resources most sportswriters would dream of; he was actually there in the clubhouse for most of Munson’s career. He mixes his firsthand experiences with detailed reporting, having spoken with teammates and family, plus occasional extracts from other books. At his best, Munson was a tremendous athlete, someone who could control a baseball game from behind the plate and a good slap hitter and battled through a series of injuries.

Munson’s complex character comes across at times. His acrimonious relationship with his father, for example, helps to explain a lot about his character. Munson’s father was resentful, bitter and angry. After a night when Thurman went 5-for-5, the elder Munson called his son’s play shitty. The drive everyone talks about when speaking of Munson’s play could’ve stemmed from this relationship; it certainly reminded me of Ty Cobb’s infamous relationship with his father.

There are other telling passages: Munson, in full uniform, talking business with Steinbrenner (and tracking dirt all over his bosses office); lending his jacket to a trainer on a cold day; offering to fly a lonely sportswriter’s family out to spring training in his new plane – which, as Appel notes, Munson had moved exceptionally quickly to. In under two years, Munson went from single-engine propeller planes to a powerful, twin-engine jet.

Munson could be cold and caustic with the media – the people who shaped his public image – but he was obviously more than that. After all, he bought his airplane so he could fly home and visit his family during breaks in the season.

Even at about 350 pages, the book feels padded. Appel regularly block-quotes sources, letting them talk for pages at a time. He runs the full, 22-page transcript of an ESPN interview with a survivor of the Munson crash; lets Keith Olbermann (who has no connection to Munson’s life) recount his experience as a young reporter on the night of the Munson crash for three pages. At the same time, occasional unfollowed threads pop up. For example, near the finish, Appel casually mentions Munson’s friendship with Wayne Newton and how it factored into Munson buying a jet. It never comes up again in the book (Newton doesn’t even crack the index!)

There are also wild changes in pacing. Near the climax, Appel breaks down the final days of Munson’s life in excruciating, day-to-day detail. But earlier in the book, he glosses over Munson’s early years, rushing through his high school and pre-pro baseball career. And Appel regularly falls back on clichés (“he knew how to play the game” ) and supposition (“It’s likely Munson would have survived…”) throughout the book, not to mention many personal digressions. In some ways, the book features him as much as it does Munson. There’s also a weird part where he calls Diana Munson pretty and says “she could have dated many men,” too.

Rating: 4/10. On the whole, Munson is a bit of a messy book, long on some details and short on others. It’s an incomplete picture of an interesting man, but what picture comes through makes Munson seem even more remarkable: a rock in the roaring sea of the late 1970s Yankees. Still, not especially recommended, even for Yankee fans; I’d go with Sparky Lyle’s The Bronx Zoo or Jonathan Mahler’s The Bronx is Burning instead.

15
Jul
14

Baseball, Ballrooms and Bedlam: The Bronx is Burning by Jonathan Mahler

The Bronx is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a CityThe Bronx is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City by Jonathan Mahler

Back in 1977, New York was a joke. A cruel one maybe, but to most of America it was a joke: the biggest city in America was on the verge of bankruptcy and crime was going out of control. It’s a gritty, tense world Jonathan Mahler evokes in The Bronx is Burning, his look at that memorable New York summer, both in the street and on the field at Yankee Stadium.

In many ways, the Yankees and the city reflected each other. Both had long legacies of greatness but had largely fallen apart in recent years. The Yankees had just returned to the postseason, but were quickly swept by the Cincinnati Reds; New York had just hosted the Democratic National Convention, but was largely ignored by President Jimmy Carter.

But the Yankees had something new to count on: slugger Reggie Jackson, who had just been signed with them in the offseason. He brought a lot of power to the lineup, but he brought a lot of drama, too. A strange mix of braggadocio and insecurity, in his late-70s prime, Jackson was as likely to destroy a pitch as he was throw his teammates or manager under the bus. Just a few weeks into the season, he gave an infamous interview with a reporter from Sport Magazine, claiming he was the straw that stirs the drink and team captain Thurman Munson could only stir it bad.

At the same time, the city was in disarray. Faced with bankruptcy, Mayor Abe Beame laid off hundreds of public workers. Police officers responded with protests and flyers trying to scare off tourists (“Welcome to fear city,” read one). There were tensions between the working class as lower rungs of society; urban renewal had led to white flight and abandoned businesses. Soon everything would explode.

Mahler’s book captures this divisive moment in the city’s history in vivid detail. He weaves back and forth between the rise of Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, a heated mayoral election, civil unrest and baseball effortlessly, often finding connections between them. The world of Studio 54 wasn’t an alien one to Reggie Jackson, but neither were impoverished areas like Bushwick or the South Bronx.

Indeed, Jackson and his furious relationship with Billy Martin largely drives the action in The Bronx… with their fights and backstabbing quickly becoming baseball lore. Mahler recounts slight after slight, quote after quote, the tension rising to a boiling point one afternoon in Boston when they came to blows in the dugout in front a national TV audience.

Soon, Mahler recounts the city’s boiling point: the blackout of 1977. He devotes one section of the book to this event, some 25 hours that changed the city’s direction. After it, the mayoral campaign took a nasty turn and soon devolved into Mario Cuomo and Ed Koch sniping at each other. After it, it was impossible to ignore the social trends that caused widespread looting and the deteriorating inner city. And after it, the Yankees slowly started turning their season around.

Although this book’s often held up as one the big sports books of the past decade – Grantland mentioned it by name in a story about baseball books a few weeks back – some parts haven’t aged well. For example: Mahler makes a good case for Jackson’s success at the plate, but his heavy reliance on statistics like batting average and RBI reflect a past era of sports writing.

His cultural picture of New York is a little shallow, too. He touches on punk rock only a bit and devotes a few pages to the burgeoning art scene. But seminal artists like Patti Smith and Jean-Michel Basquiat never show up and Mahler genrally seems more interested in describing details of the gay scene (a club with an 18-wheeler set up in it!) than in giving it a wider social context like he does with disco.

But the political sections of his book have aged better: the Post’s heavy focus on Son of Sam prefigures the post 9/11 jingoism of Murdoch’s Fox News by decades and his account of the changing campaigns of Koch and Cuomo is fascinating, if a little short.

I would’ve liked more on how each (not to mention fellow candidate Bella Abzug) saw how the election changed their careers or how the Post kept growing in the years after, but I’m generally satisfied by what’s here.

Rating: 7/10. An enjoyable read, I breezed through this one in a few days. While it’s picture of the city is relatively small, it has a huge scope and attempts to show America’s largest city in a state of flux. As a baseball history, it’s no Summer of 49, but it’ll more than fit the bill for a fun summer read.

29
Oct
13

Boys Will Be Boys: Yet Another Tabloidy Read by Jeff Pearlman

Boys Will Be Boys: The Glory Days and Party Nights of the Dallas Cowboys DynastyBoys Will Be Boys: The Glory Days and Party Nights of the Dallas Cowboys Dynasty by Jeff Pearlman

If you’ve read one Jeff Pearlman book, maybe you’ve read them all. That might sound like a weird statement for a sports journalist, but I couldn’t help but think I’ve heard this story before: a team is built up by a talented front office, with a core made of players cast offs or homegrown superstars, and as they start succeeding, they grow arrogant and party harder than Andrew WK and eventually they pull off an upset and a memorable championship before imploding in their own success. That’s the storyline here, it was the same story in Pearlman’s earlier book The Bad Guys Won! and idea of arrogance rising above talent was prominent in Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero. And I think it’s easy to guess what his upcoming book on the 1980s Lakers will be about, too.

Not to say that makes this a bad book. Pearlman’s chasing a story too drenched in controversy to be dull: this was a boozing, womanizing asshole superstar-driven team. They drove motorcycles into nightclubs, ran a whorehouse and did enough blow to make Tony Montana blush. It’s a wonder nobody on the team died. The 1990-95 period is one giant sensational story and Pearlman laps it up, recounting these excesses with a strange sort of dissonance: he’ll repeatedly report about all the awful stuff they did, but it almost feels like it’s supposed to be funny. Maybe I’m weird for not laughing at those stories of people behaving like idiots.

But if you’re interested in what made these teams so successful, there’s not a lot here: between stories of excess, he recaps games like a newspaper columnist. He never touches on coaching strategies, only on stories about how hard Jimmy Johnson pushed his players (or how lax Barry Switzer was). I’d have appreciated a little more about this angle: what made Troy Aikman click so well with Jay Novacek? Surely it was more than accurate pass running or a shared love of country music. And what about the assistant coaches: their names come and go but what did they bring to the table? Pearlman’s more concerned with telling us about how they didn’t get along with Aikman or whatever.

He also has a tendency to fall back on cliches and odd metaphors:

“it was as clear as Governor Ann Richard’s white mane that this was Jimmy Johnson’s team – no ifs, ands, or buts.”

My favourite comes pretty early in the book:

“Watching the Cowboys of 1990 was akin to sitting through a sixteen-week Days of Our Lives Marathon – while drunk.”

You’d know, Pearlman.

All this said, it’s clear Pearlman did his homework. There’s a lengthy section of endnotes, sourcing where he got quotes from, and a bibliography, too. And that’s maybe my biggest problem with the book: he was able to speak to so many people, references so many printed reports and books and seems like he knows this team well. So why did I never feel like I was seeing how things actually worked?

Rating: 3/10. I suppose there’s worse books about this era of Dallas Cowboy football. Skip Bayless wrote three of them alone. But there’s better ones, too. Thankfully, this book’s bibliography is stuffed with them. Start there and keep working forward.

17
Oct
13

Thinkpiece Thursday: On Athletic Autobiographies

Over at Sports Illustrated, there’s an excerpt from Bobby Orr’s new autobiography, Orr: My Story. I haven’t read that book yet, so I’ll leave my thoughts on it for another day.* But it got me thinking about autobiographies of famous athletes and especially why so many of them, well, just aren’t that good. What gives?

*: A stray thought: did Orr decide to write the book after reading Stephen Brunt’s biography about him? As I remember, Orr didn’t want to participate in that book, but I can’t remember why.

The easy answer is something about confidence. Right now, I’m reading a book about the 90s Dallas Cowboys and just finished a chapter about Emmitt Smith. He started his career as a pretty humble man, claims Jeff Pearlman, but as his star rose and he catapulted to fame, his ego grew to the point where he routinely ignored fans and acted like a jackass. In other words: his confidence rose and grew into arrogance.

That happens to most athletes, who are as susceptible to the trappings of fame as anyone. And, as the easy answer would go, it’s why most athletes aren’t good at writing about themselves: they’re self-assured, brash and confident and not very interested in looking at themselves or their motivations. But there’s a couple flaws to this argument.

The first is that almost every athlete’s autobiography was actually written by someone else. Wilt Chamberlain’s first book (the underrated Wilt: Just Like Any Other 7-Foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door) was more or less written by David Shaw; Shaquille O’Neal’s first book, the quickie cash-in Shaq Attack, was written by Jack McCallum, who’s since written some great books (related: my review of his 2012 book Dream Team). I can only think of a few athletes who’ve written their own books and generally, they’re actually pretty good.

Bill Bradley – Life on the Run

One that immediately comes to mind: Bill Bradley’s Life on the Run. Written a long time ago, back when he was more known for his basketball career, not his political career, it’s a first-hand account of the NBA at an interesting time, before the ABA expanded the talent pool dramatically and before drug scandals brought the league to it’s low point. The travel was gruelling, the money wasn’t anywhere like it is now and yet the appeal was the same. It’s a great read; it’s one of the best basketball books ever.

Another great one: Jim Bouton’s Ball FourFor years I’ve had a soft spot for this book and I’ve read it more than a few times. His is more of a diary than an autobiography, but I think it fits in here. It recounts just one season in the big leagues, where he bounced from the moribund Seattle Pilots to Houston. He writes about living the life of a big leaguer, an account as honest as it is hilarious and profane. He writes about “shooting beaver” with the Yankees, when players would scope out attractive women in the stands. He tells of a prank where a guy shoved popcorn in his foreskin. He writes about boozing, drug use and being bored a lot. It blew apart more myths than any sports book before it and even 40 years after it’s publication, it’s as readable as ever.

The Game – Ken Dryden

Finally, there’s what I consider the best sports autobiography ever: Ken Dryden’s The Game. It’s more or less about his final season as a goalie, but touches on other parts of his life and reflections on the game. It shouldn’t be a huge surprise hat Dryden wrote one of the great sports books, too. He was a man who did things differently than most athletes. He started his career with a hot streak in the 1971 playoffs, going 12-8 as the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup. He actually won the Conn Smythe Trophy the year before he named Rookie of the Year. Only a couple seasons later, he took a year off to clerk at a law firm and earn his degree. And after winning his sixth Stanley Cup ring in 1979, he walked away from hockey. In his concise, fluid prose, Dryden covers his unconventional career with an assuming modesty; he never comes across as brash or arrogant, although maybe a little stiff at times.

Like I said, I haven’t read Orr’s book yet, but I don’t really expect it to compare to these three. Still, based on the excerpt I did read, it seems better than your run-of-the-mill one, too. Hope the rest of the book holds up.

24
Sep
13

How the Game Got Modern: Three Baseball Books

I’ve been trying to have new reviews here each week, but sometimes things run short and this is one of those times. I’m still reading about a book a week, but when I have other priorities – ie: writing reviews for places that pay me – sometimes those reviews end up there instead.

Generally speaking, that’s why you don’t see too many sports book reviews here; they end up at The Good Point, where I’ve been a writer for the better part of four years. Over the course of this year, I’ve written about three baseball books for the site, each of varying quality. If you want a more detailed look at each, check out the links at the bottom. What I found interesting about them is how as a whole, they show the game becoming modern and something recognizable.

Organized baseball has it’s roots in 19th century America with a history as colourful as it is hazy. It was a strange, sparely documented sport with interesting people who sometimes seem more apocryphal than real. Who was Ol’ Hoss Radbourn? Did he really win 60 games in one season? And did he literally pitch a complete game while drunk and still drinking between inning)? We’ll probably never know.

As the 20th century came, baseball increased in popularity and became one of the biggest sports in the US. With this added popularity came more colour and more reliable histories. It’s right at this intersection of truth and hyperbole that Cait Murphy’s Crazy ’08 exists. That year had one of baseball’s best pennant races, with teams right in it the thick of it until the last day in both league, and some of it’s most hard-to-explain moments: riots on the field, people dying in the stands and Fred Merkle running to the clubhouse instead of touching second (allegedly!).

I’m a sucker for breezy, hard-to-verify baseball histories (one of my favourite reads ever is Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times) and this was a book that should’ve been right up my alley. The problem was Murphy’s prose, written like the purple sportswriting of the day. It was a hard block to get past; I often wondered if she was quoting Grantland Rice or some other sportswriter of yore.

Still, it’s a nice portrait of the game growing up before your eyes: recognizable stars emerging into the public consciousness, mass media building a fandom for the game (it was the first time giant scoreboards brought live action outside the stadiums) and rule changes which brought the game more stability (more uniform use of umpires, for example). In only a few years, the game had grown into something you’d recognize today.

But the game was still very much different in other ways. Even a few years after Murphy’s narrative leaves off, baseball was played in a more active yet less exciting way: get a single, steal a base or two, sacrifice bunt the runner home. Home runs were rare enough that hitting twelve in a season was enough to give you a name like Home Run Baker. And mind you: most of those were of the inside-the-park variety; hitting for power wasn’t in vogue.

Babe Ruth changed all that. But as Robert Creamer’s biography shows, it didn’t seem that way even after he’d been in the league for a few years. Everyone remembers how Ruth was a pitcher for the Red Sox. What’s maybe less remembered is his batting lines from those years: .272/.322/.419 in 1916, .325/.385/.472 the next. He was a pitcher first and foremost, batting ninth in the lineup and not playing when he wasn’t on the mound. But this gave him time to experiment with his swing: when he hit an American League-leading 11 home runs in 1918, he also led the AL in strikeouts. Still, Ruth soon re-invented himself as a power hitter, refusing to pitch and focusing on mashing dingers at a pace nobody had ever seen before.

And as he hit more and more home runs, his popularity blew through the roof. There’d been stars in baseball before – Honus Wager, Ty Cobb, etc. – but nobody was like Ruth before. He drew people to the ballpark only to see his home runs and signed endorsement deals for nearly anything he could. In just a few years, Ruth was hitting more home runs than entire teams.

He was making more money than anyone in baseball ever had, too. In 1920, he made $20,000 a season. Just a few years later, it was $52,000. Even today, nearly 100 years later, that’s enough to (barely) live off of. By the US Bureau of Labor’s calculator, that’s over $700,000 per season. And that’s just the money he made from his teams, too. Creamer does a good job of pointing out a less obvious truth about Ruth: he wasn’t just the first person to hit like today’s players, but the first to get paid like one, too.

One other thing Ruth did was more or less make the Yankees. Back in the earlier part of the century – the era Murphy covered – the Yankees/Highlanders were generally an also-ran. Between 1903, their first year in New York, and 1919 they finished fourth or lower 13 times and with a .500 or better record just seven times. Within two years of signing Ruth, they became one of baseball’s biggest dynasties: six World Series appearances in eight years, no mean feat in the days when only one team from each league made the postseason.

Ruth was the big part of the dynasty, but not the only one. Pitchers like Carl Mays and Waite Hoyt were important and there were role players like Wally Pipp or Wally Schang. But a few years after Ruth joined the Yankees he got one of his most important teammates: Lou Gehrig.

His first year as a Yankee was 1923, but Gehrig didn’t see regular playing time until a couple of seasons later. In his first full year in the league, Gehrig hit .295/.365/.531 with 20 home runs. He’d combine with Ruth to form the core what New York sportswriters called Murderers’ Row, the powerful hitting lineup of the Yankees.

The peak of these teams was 1927, when New York ripped through the competition. They won 110 games, 19 more than the second-place Athletics, and ripped through Pittsburgh in the World Series. That year, Ruth destroyed pitchers with a .356/.486/.772 line (and 60 home runs to boot), but Gehrig wasn’t far behind: .373/.474/.765 and 47 homers. Indeed, that season Gehrig won the first of his two MVP trophies.

As Ruth’s career (and fitness level) began to decline, Gehrig’s play took over. In 1934, Ruth’s last season as Yankee, Gehrig turned in one of his best seasons as a Yankee: .363/.465/.706. This year, Baseball-Reference credits him with a 10.8 WAR, his second-best total.

The difference between Gehrig and Ruth was a matter of confidence around the media. Whereas Ruth loved the spotlight, Gehrig shied away. As Jonathan Eig points out in a great biography of Gehrig, this was a man who lived with his parents well into his adulthood and was uncomfortable in social settings. At parties, he was known to slip away early and unnoticed. He wasn’t just a star, but the kind of star modern sportswriters would’ve loved to write about: moody and complex, a much fuller personality than the media of his day would’ve appreciated.

Eig’s biography does a remarkable job of giving Gehrig his dues, no mean feat considering how long ago his wife and family died; he had no children. It’s easy to reduce Gehrig to a famous speech, some powerful hitting and a tragic disease, but Eig goes deeper, showing his complicated background, his attitude to period media and reluctance to be turned into a superstar. More than anyone before him, Gehrig seems like a modern star, someone who’s flaws make him more compelling and harder to understand. By the time he left baseball in 1939, baseball was recognizably modern: played the way it’s done today by people fleshed out in three dimensions, who don’t quite transcend the sport like Ruth but seem more like you and I.

Related:

Jonathan Eig – Luckiest Man

Robert Creamer – Babe: The Legend Comes to Life

Cait Murphy – Crazy ’08

 




Archives