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Archive for the ‘book reviews’ Category

501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read Before They Die, Ron Kaplan (2013)

Kaplan’s been writing about baseball books for years so he’s the ideal writer for this project. He hasn’t read everything but has read enough that I’m confident the titles he features will be entertaining and informative for anyone needing a baseball reading list. The book covers books from the 19th century until 2012, with fifteen chapters covering all aspects of nonfiction and a limited selection of fiction, including children’s books. Unless you’re very widely read you won’t have heard of most of these books. I even found an extensive list of books I hadn’t heard of and wanted to read. Most were available in Minnesota public libraries. Since I read this book in 2013, I’ve been reading from these lists and it’s made for lots of fun reading!

100 Things Twins Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die, Alex Halsted (2011)

I picked this up at the library as a comparison tool for reviewing the recently released Brewers volume in this series. It’s definitely a formula, but it works. At the time he wrote this, Halsted was a college student and a baseball blogger, not a working journalist. He has a great grasp on Twins history, covering a lot of great 1960s and 1970s moments as well as the famous more recent World Series wins and the tough 1990s. Like the other books in the series, it covers fans and ballpark experiences. Some of it seems like team PR, but it’s kind of expected out of a book with this theme. It’s to get new fans excited about the team and refresh less recent fans about what they may have missed or have forgotten about. I wish some of the people I’ve been stuck next to at Target Field had read this book. (To the team’s credit, this book and lots of other books on the Twins are available in the team store at the field. Go Team Books!)

Game Six: Cincinnati, Boston, and the 1975 World Series, Mark Frost (2009)

Why not Game 7, when the Reds actually won? This was the game of Fisk’s famous home run, concluding 12 innings of drama that kept the Red Sox alive for one more day. Yes, you can get 400 pages of book out of 12 innings of baseball, but maybe you shouldn’t. Thus the interesting parts weren’t about the game itself but the things around the game: the 3-day rain delay before it, the drama surrounding the change in television contracts with NBC losing its baseball exclusive to ABC beginning with the 1976 season, Sparky Anderson’s managerial style, and the life story of Luis Tiant. I want the Tiant book instead.

You Gotta Have Heart: A History of Washington Baseball From 1859 to the 2012 National League East Champions, Frederic J. Frommer (2013)

I believe this may be a revision of Frommer’s earlier book about D.C. baseball published when the Nationals were moved from Montreal to Washington, updated including the Nationals since then with an emphasis on their 2012 NL East-winning season and heartbreaking playoff collapse. If you’re looking for in-depth analysis on any aspect of Washington baseball, look elsewhere; this book is all about dates, small facts, and fans. It’s less than 250 pages of text that hits on all aspects of D.C.’s baseball history: the original Senators, the Negro Leagues (particularly the Homestead Grays,) the expansion-era Senators, and the current Nationals as well as covering fandom and the intersection of politicians and baseball. Of course it isn’t in-depth. I’ve read 300+-page books on Bryce Harper alone; how can you cover Walter Johnson and Harmon Killebrew in depth in less than that? But as an intro for new Nats fans, it can’t be challenged until the Nats win it all. (This book was received as part of LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program)

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It’s hard to write a modern biography of the sort of person who almost nobody had a bad word to say about and it’s clear from this book and other accounts that Mark Fidrych was one of these people. Because his subject is one of these rare birds-no pun intended-in being both intriguing and non-controversial, Doug Wilson had to find his drama elsewhere other than the bumps in the road of Fidrych’s baseball career.

Now that the late Boomers and early X-ers have grown up, we’re getting the first waves of 1970s nostalgia. (The Golden Age of Baseball may not be 12, as the joke about science fiction and its fandom goes, but if it isn’t it’s very close.) Unfortunately the infection present in the earlier waves of 1950s and 1960s nostalgia has spread here: the idea that everything was better in the good old days, before free agency. (Conveniently ignored is the fact that if Fidrych hadn’t had his career end early, he would have been eligible for free agency in 1981. He was already a player of the free agency era at his debut.) It’s true that baseball hasn’t quite known a gate-drawing phenomenon on the national level like Fidrych was in 1976 (the more regional Fernandomania of 1981 came close) but I don’t know if it’s an artifact of new media delivering all prospect news before it can be a surprise. It seems more of a “could have only happened then” case but not for that reason- it needed a personality that captured the cultural feel at the time in an environment where this was the most exciting thing going at the time. It is an aspect of fan culture that is missed and is definitely not the same, but I place the blame on ownership and what is and is not allowed at newer parks rather than on the players. If the lack of fan enthusiasm was on the players, the fan culture in Oakland would not exist. If management allows it, the fans in costumes and creative banners hanging off the stadium will happen.

Sadly, if not for this misdirection of nostalgia this book would be excellent, due to its subject: a working-class man who just wanted to work as a ballplayer to earn enough money to buy a garage or a business truck. He moved back home, bought a house, bought a dump truck, married a local, and was driving his truck to excavation jobs until the day he died. The thing he got and never wanted was celebrity, but he used it well to support charity projects.

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This book is a look at the AAA level of minor league baseball, by following a set of individuals through the International League during the 2012 season. I joke a lot that the IL is terra incognita for me and this book both proved it and educated me. The players he followed were only familiar to me if they had played previously in MLB or even only the Pacific Coast League, or if they had been involved with the Brewers.

One of the players he follows is Scott Podsednik, who had a very unusual and transaction-filled 2012.He started the season in the Phillies organization, ended up with the Red Sox organization, made the majors with the Sox, then got traded to Arizona and two days after that was released. Then the Red Sox signed him again to a major league contract.

I enjoyed reading about managers Ron Johnson and Charlie Montoya. Montoya has been a longtime manager in the Rays organization, primarily at Durham, and one of the strengths that people keep mentioning about the Rays is their continuity of coaching.

Strangely, I found the stories of the players Feinstein didn’t track throughout the season to be more interesting. This was mostly, outside of the managers, Feinstein doesn’t go into a lot of depth about the personalities he tracked in 2012. It makes me wonder how much got cut down to edit the book to a more manageable size, if anything was cut at all. There are a lot of stories about players relevant to the 2014 Brewers like Zach Duke and Pete Orr.

It’s absolutely fascinating, especially if you only follow MLB or only dip into the minors to look at prospects or your own team’s minor league system. It’s an emotional wringer even for people like me familiar with the high minors or who think the entire purpose of baseball is a metaphorical framework explaining failure. (Why, yes, I did like the sections about Brett Tomko best of all.)

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This book is a ridiculous crime fiction novel featuring a relief pitcher private investigator. The part about a reliever being a PI wasn’t the ridiculous part. It was everything else.

Does traditional noir set in this present day really work? I’ve read a few of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series (which one of the cover blurbs on this book compares it to) and I’ve never felt ooky about reading those, even with the period sexism. 1964 was indeed another country and the female agency in the McGee series seemed different than it does here. Even with female heroes and villains (and victims) Monday seems to have included them only as plot objects.

The suspension of disbelief didn’t happen for me. The baseball is generally good, the opposite of most sports-related genre fiction I’ve encountered. Here we have sports that make sense (mostly) but the crime plot is over the top. Or distasteful. Or, more to the point, both.

(The bad baseball point: why would a manager make the team LOOGY the closer? It’s clear at the beginning that the protagonist is a situational reliever. If his splits were equal, he wouldn’t be used as a situational reliever. See Sean Doolittle and Glen Perkins for usage patterns for a high-leverage LHRP.)

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This book is one of those massively recommended baseball novels. As a peek into 19th century baseball and the 1876 Red Stockings, it’s unparalleled in fiction. There’s definitely enough baseball in here. Unfortunately the entire kitchen sink went into the production of the rest of the novel.

1) It looks like a straightforward time-travel novel with lots of baseball.
2) Then our protagonist has to escape from gamblers. Not so unusual for the period, but…
3) He runs into Mark Twain (who he’s named for)
4) and there’s psychics
5) and the Fenian Brotherhood
6) and then it turns into a time-travel romance (with no HEA)
7) and a cross-country chase
and most of the baseball disappeared.

The end made it look like one of those “the old days were better” books when it’s clear from Sam’s actions in the past re racism and sexism that he didn’t agree…whatever, it didn’t fit the author’s plot template.

In conclusion, it’s crackfic. It hung together as well as can be expected–it takes a talented author to juggle this much and have the audience keep watching, and Brock is–but there’s a point where he starts dropping balls. Thankfully it’s late in the novel.

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The subtitle is refreshing to see as it refers to a sporting event that means something to my generation as an “all-time best”, especially something in baseball where the late 1980s and early 1990s have been ignored in historical baseball books until this one came out. I’m going to beg to differ on calling this the best World Series of all time–I preferred 2001, but that Series carries a cargo hold of other baggage and I’m actually not looking forward to the historical coverage of that one. This book is fine for what it is, which is a coverage of the World Series in particular and not an in-depth look at either team’s season or even of the league championship series. My problem with the book, and it’s not exactly a problem unless you’re me (or a few other people,) is that my friend is absolutely obsessed with this World Series and she has told me so much about it based on the contemporary journalism and the statistical record that the only thing Wendel could bring me to add to that was his current interviews with primary sources.

Wendel was covering this World Series for USA Today and its Baseball Weekly publication and he uses many of his interviews from 1991 as source material for this book. The drawback of the book, and its current sources, is how much time is spent with the victors. His only 2013 interviews with Braves were with Terry Pendleton and Mark Grant. Mark Grant is easy to find, because he is the analyst for Padres television broadcasts. Grant was on the disabled list for most of 1991 but at least he took that time on his hands to help develop (with Steve Avery) lots of rally cap variations. I like that Wendel used great, interesting sources like Dan Gladden and Brian Harper to shape his narrative but once again, they’re easy to find; they, like other heavily-used source Ron Gardenhire, still work in and around professional baseball.

Another thing noticed in the book and relevant to discourse of today was his mention of the American Indian Movement’s anti-mascot protests. It should prove to anyone reading that this issue with Native mascots didn’t magically appear in 2013, but if you’re from Minnesota and were paying attention you should know that.

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Or, one-paragraph reviews that weren’t lengthy enough for their own individual posts.

Cracking Baseball’s Cold Cases, Peter Morris (2013)

Morris is a member of SABR’s Biographical Committee and his area of interest is tracking down players with no known date and place of death. In this book he shares the stories of seventeen players whose information he has tracked down in the last two decades. He provides both the small and frequently interesting life stories of the players before, during and after they left the game and an explanation of how baseball research is done now and how it was done before the widespread availability of online public records. Recommended for those interested in the processes of historical research as well as those interested in everyday 19th and 20th century North American history, not just baseball history.

Francona: The Red Sox Years, Dan Shaughnessy and Terry Francona (2013)

I guess you can do a “tell-all” book about managing one team while still managing another: by not being excessively critical of still-active players and turning all cannons on one’s former employers. Most of the blame for the Red Sox zoo of the last few years is attributed to the zookeepers, more concerned about marketing the product and micromanaging that they forgot about the people who put on the games every day. So, really, nothing particularly revealing. Most of this stuff, especially concerning ownership interference with transactions, could have been sifted through in reports from Boston sports media if one had really wanted to, except the stuff about Francona himself. The first three chapters of the book go into his pre-Sox career and hiring and are the most interesting. Yes, it’s Brewers-relevant! He played for Milwaukee in 1989-90. And also pitched. His manager used him as a pinch runner so he’d make a games-played bonus in his contract. He also was one of the players’ kids hanging about the 1970 team, giving him his first experiences of the Bigs.

The American Game: Baseball and Ethnicity (2002)

This book is part of Southern Illinois University Press’s Writing Baseball series; its focus is largely on how contemporary media portrayed ethnicity in baseball. We’re attuned to issues of color/race in media these days but the ways other groups seen currently as “white” were portrayed in early 20th century media is disturbing in the same ways; it’s a shortening to ethnic stereotypes, some positive but most demeaning. It’s a very, very, very small introduction to the experience of various ethnic groups in baseball, especially within the pro game. Its nine short essays cover the Anglo-American influence on the game, Germans, Irish, African Americans, Italians, Jews, Slavs, Latinos, and Asians. There have been many, many books about the African American experience in baseball, and a few more on Latinos and Japanese Americans, but not much else or not much good about other ethnic groups. The book is a very valuable read for that.

Matty: An American Hero, Ray Robinson (1993)

Probably should be read along with The Player–which I did not review–for context of the period, and Crazy ’08 for the 1908 World Series–what you are apparently getting with Christy Mathewson bios is “short”–he was good but boring and there really isn’t much ground to cover in a straightforward bio like this one is if you’re mainly interested in the baseball. This one doesn’t tell everything which is why it needs to be part of a paired reading. It’s an odd time: these bios were 1990s works, it’s too soon to do another, but now we’re out of living primary sources. I’m not complaining about this work by any means, just comparing it to newer works about the period’s players like Chief Bender’s Burden and thinking it’s just not as all-encompassing. It just may be due to a change in what’s expected out of historical biographies in the 21st century, though.

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