Here it is again: spring and the baseball season. And both Chicago teams lost their openers. Luckily, it's a looooong season. And, as Scarlett would say, "Tomorrow is another day." We can say that for awhile, maybe up until the All-Star break, at which point we will begin to say, "Wait 'til next year." Scratch a baseball cynic and you will find a baseball romantic, raised in a ballpark, on popcorn, peanuts, and ice cream eaten with a wooden spoon. So while we are waiting for victories, as a librarian I can always find solace in books. So here's an admittedly quirky, highly subjective list of some favorites:
Bang the Drum Slowly by Mark Harris (1956)
"O bang the drum slowly and play the fife lowly,
Play the dead march as they carry me on,
Put bunches of roses all over my coffin,
Roses to deaden the clods as they fall" – The Streets of Laredo
Bang the Drum Slowly, one of a quartet of novels by Harris with protagonist Henry “Author” Wiggen, reaches for the heights in sports literature and might even be considered one of those elusive “great American novels.” Set back in the day before free-agency created millionaires out of regular guys who play games for a living, Harris viewed sports with a coldly realistic eye. His players are workmanlike drudges who have off season jobs and indulge in foul language, alcohol, and womanizing (when they are not playing baseball or TEGWAR-the exciting game without any rules). Team management cares mainly about the bottom line. Things that happen off the field do effect performance on the field. The writing is honest; the plot, which revolves around the relationship between a star pitcher and his roommate, the quirky third-string catcher just diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, is engrossing; and the narrative voice is wonderfully distinctive. An excellent film version starring a very young Michael Moriarty and Robert DeNiro was released in 1973.
Ball Four by Jim Bouton (1970)
One of the original sports tell-all books, Bowie Kuhn, the
commissioner of baseball at the time, attempted to discredit it by claiming it was detrimental to the ideals of the sport. Bouton pitched for the New York Yankees, the Houston Astros and the Seattle Pilots (during the club's only year in existence), retired and later became a sportscaster. Ball Four is now considered to be one of the most important sports books ever written and was named to the New York Public Library’s list of “Books of the Century.” A great underdog story, which details Bouton’s struggle for a comeback on the strength of a knuckleball, Ball Four is insightful, laugh-out-loud funny, brutally honest, and an overall great read.
A Pennant for the Kremlin by Paul Malloy (1964)
Here’s a period piece from the Cold War-era before glasnost,
perestroika and the birthmark on Mikhail Gorbachev’s forehead caused the Soviet Union to crumble. The Chicago White Sox wind up the property of the Soviet government when, in a fit of pique, a wealthy hotel magnate wills everything he owns to the Reds - no, not the ones in Cincinnati. Unexpectedly, he croaks and the Soviets end up owning an American baseball team. They send the usual suspects to tend to their interests in Chicago. The new manager proves to be smarter than he looks in his half-suit/half-Sox uniform. His hottie of a daughter falls in love with the team’s star. And, of course, there’s the loyal Commie overseer who sends daily reports back to Moscow and distributes the worker’s newspapers to all the players. In one funny set-piece, Pravda sends a
propagandist/reporter to cover the story for readers back home, and he writes a scathing piece about a Cubs game while the Sox are out of town. In another lovely and well-written scene, the Soviet manager reflects on the great variety of people that he's encountered on the team road trips. The reader might feel more than a twinge of nostalgia for pre-Wal-Mart
and pre-Facebook America.
We Are the Ship: the Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson (2008)
The title comes from a quote by Rube Foster, the founder of the Negro National League: “We are the ship; all else the sea.” Kadir Nelson brings the struggles and successes of gifted African-American athletes to life in words and incredible illustrations. Even the staunchest fan of baseball may not be familiar with the stories of the passionate, hard-working men who played the sport in the shadow of segregation and formed their own league. This book is grounded in personal anecdotes that make history a living, breathing thing.
Moneyball by Michael Lewis (2003)
Before the movie, there was the book. And the book introduced us to the concept of sabermetrics, the mathematical and statistical analysis of baseball records. And reading the book made me realize that my brother was a sabermetrician (??) before it was popular, because he would pore over baseball game box scores and create his own lists of baseball stats throughout the course of a season. Data, data, data! Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane and his assistant, Paul DePodesta use it creatively to challenge conventional baseball wisdom and put together a team that can compete on the field with other organizations that have a lot more money to throw around. It’s all about getting on base. Well, duh!
A Whole New Ball Game: the Story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League by Sue Macy (1995)
Here’s an authoritative and well-written account of the
All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. From 1943 to 1954, women belonged at home, first, second and third base and in the outfield, too. The author dug into the archives and surveyed and interviewed former players to develop a clear picture of the era, showing us the reasons for the league's initial popularity and its ultimate failure. The league drew hundreds of talented athletes who worked to create a team spirit and who supported each other’s individual sense of worth as the players pushed up against the repressive social trends of the postwar era. It’s a fascinating look at a rather obscure era in American sports.
Okay, so maybe this, on the surface, has nothing to do with reading and/or writing, but... baseball is a metaphor for life. And so it absolutely has everything to do with reading and writing. Today, Chicagoans can celebrate Ron Santo finally getting recognition from Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, the reward is posthumous and several decades late. And the outcome of the "Golden Era" election was hardly a perfect resolution for baseball fans in the Windy City. White Sox great Minnie Minoso was still denied at place in the pantheon of baseball greats and that's an outrageous oversight!
Minoso led the league in steals three times in an era when people didn’t steal a ton of bases. He also led in triples three times and hits once and total bases in another. He racked up 1,963 hits, 186 home runs, and 205 steals. Minoso did not win a major award, and he never played in the postseason. On a superficial level, it’s a very good career, but perhaps not an all-time great one. However, you can’t talk about Minnie Minoso’s case for Cooperstown without getting into his history in other circuits, playing at a time when opportunity was not equal, thanks to matters of race and the reserve clause. His first three years as a pro were spent in his homeland of Cuba (1943-45). He played three more years in the Negro Leagues for the New York Cubans (1946-1948) and then played in the minor leagues because the Indians felt they were already set in the outfield.
Minoso got his real break in 1951 after getting sent to the White Sox in a three-way deal. Minoso was already 28 years old. As a result, Minoso was already well through the years that are supposed to be a player’s peak seasons, years he hadn’t gotten to spend in the majors due to racism. We can't speculate how much of his career was lost to that.
Despite this late start, Minoso took off on a 10-year run that marked him as one of the best players in the American League.
Minoso was a trailblazer as baseball’s first great black Latin player as well as the first black man to play for the White Sox. His popularity in Chicago was astounding, as he was widely acknowledged as the reason the White Sox attendance crossed a million for the first time in franchise history in 1951, and then stayed there throughout the decade of the 1950s. He was a major cause for South Side pride! Did I ever get to see him play? Of course not. But I listened to many stories at my father's knee as to his greatness, both as a baseball player and as a gentleman. He was ever a positive team force, and had a smile for everyone. The Hall needs to add him while he's still around to truly appreciate the honor!
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