|Yankee Stadium. Photo by Jason Schott.
With the new baseball season set to open on Thursday, March 28, it is a great time to look at some books on the history of the sport: Here's the Pitch by Roberta J. Newman, Last Seasons in Havana by Cesar Brioso, Once Upon a Team: The Epic Rise and HIstoric Fall of Baseball's Wilmington Quicksteps by Jon Springer, and Warren Spahn: A Biography of the Legendary Lefty by Lew Freedman.
Here's the Pitch: The Amazing, True, New, and Improved Story of Baseball and Advertising
By Roberta J. Newman
University of Nebraska Press; hardcover, 352 pages; $34.95
The mid-nineteenth century saw the advent of two industries that arrived on the American scene and would change the country forever.
One was strictly a business, yet it helped create, define, and disseminate American culture. The other was ostensibly just a game, yet it soon became emblematic of what it meant to be American, aiding in the creation of a national identity.
Today, whenever the AT&T call to the bullpen is heard, fans enter Minute Maid Park, or vote for favorite All-Stars (brought to us by MasterCard), we are reminded that advertising has become inseparable from the MLB experience.
Roberta J. Newman, in the new book Here’s the Pitch, examines this connection between baseball and advertising, as both constructors and reflectors of culture. There is consideration of the simultaneous development of both industries from the birth of the partnership, paying particular attention to the ways in which advertising spread the gospel of baseball at the same time professional baseball helped develop a body of consumers ready for the messages of advertising.
This is the story of the development of American culture, and an increasingly international one as well, through the marriage between Mad Men and The Boys of Summer that made for great copy, notable TV advertisements, and lively social media, and shows how baseball’s relationship with advertising is stronger than ever.
Newman considers the role of product endorsements in the creation of the culture of celebrity, and of celebrity baseball players in particular, as well as the ways in which new technologies have impacted the intersection of the two industries.
From Ty Cobb to Babe Ruth in the 1920s and 1930s to Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, and Willie Mays in the postwar years, to Derek Jeter, Rafael Palmeiro, and David Ortiz in the twenty-first century, Newman looks at many of baseball’s celebrated players and shows what qualities made them the perfect pitchmen for new products at key moments.
Newman writes, "Not surprisingly, one of baseball's top endorsers during the late 1950s and into the '60s was the Yankees' golden boy, Mickey Mantle. In terms of endorsement potential, Mantle was the complete package. He was one of the premiere players of his era, winning three Most Valuable Player Awards, two batting titles, and in 1956, baseball's Triple Crown, when he led the American League not only in average but also in home runs and runs batted in. Certainly, there were other great players among Mantle's contemporaries, but their advertising presence did not measure up to Mantle's. He was, after all, also graced with both wholesome, All-American good looks and likability. Mantle endorsed a plethora of products both during and after his career. Like so many other players of the period, he endorsed cigarettes and beer, Camels and Ballantine, respectively. He endorsed sporting goods and menswear, and he endorsed tires, including, but not limited to, those produced by his own celebrity-branded Mickey Mantle Tire Company. And he endorsed breakfast foods, lots and lots of breakfast foods. Mantle lent his stamp of approval to Post Alpha-Bits, Florida Citrus Frozen Orange Juice, and Karo Syrup (for extra pep on pancakes). Perhaps most famously, Mantle, with his bat perched jauntily on his shoulder, whined into the camera, 'I want my Maypo!' in imitation of cereal manufacturer Heubline's animated advertising icon Marky Maypo, the delightful tyke who whined the company's slogan in support of maple-flavored oatmeal from televisions across America beginning in 1956."
Last Seasons in Havana: The Castro Revolution and the End of Professional Baseball in Cuba
By Cesar Brioso
University of Nebraska Press; hardcover, 304 pages; $29.95
In the new book, Last Seasons in Havana, César Brioso, a digital producer and former baseball editor for USA Today Sports, looks at the impact of Fidel Castro's communist revolution in Cuba in 1959, when Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista was overthrown, on professional baseball in the seasons that followed.
Baseball in pre‑Castro Cuba was enjoying a golden age. The Cuban League, which had been founded in 1878, just two years after the formation of the National League in America, was thriving under the auspices of organized baseball.
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, players from the Major Leagues, Minor Leagues, and Negro Leagues had come to Cuba to play in the country’s wholly integrated winter baseball league. Cuban teams had come to dominate the annual Caribbean Series tournament, and Havana had joined the highest levels of Minor League Baseball, fielding the Havana Sugar Kings of the Class AAA International League. Confidence was high that Havana might one day have a Major League team of its own.
Brioso writes, "The inaugural game of the Sugar Kings' existence opened to great fanfare. Ribbons adorned all the box seats. Cuban, American, and Canadian flags draped the front of the press box. A highly choreographed first pitch included a pair of foreign ambassadors and the president of a United States-based Minor League. A new era dawned for baseball in Cuba on Tuesday, April 20, 1954. El Gran Stadium would play host to the first game of Cuba's entry in the Class Triple-A International League. Roberto 'Bobby' Maduro had built the stadium in 1946 to be the new, modern home of the Cuban League, the country's professional winter circuit. But Maduro's stadium was about to become home to Havana's fledgling Minor League team, which he owned as well.
"In almost every measurable way, El Gran Stadium was a superior baseball facility to its predecessor, La Tropical, which had housed the Cuban League from 1930 to 1946. Built in Havana's working-class El Cerro neighborhood, El Gran Stadium was about half the distance from La Tropical to downtown Havana. It seated more than thirty-five thousand fans, fifteen thousand more than the previous stadium had. Unlike La Tropical, with its space for a soccer field and Olympic track, as well as beer gardens and a dance hall, El Gran Stadium was designed specifically for baseball. Eight light towers allowed for night games.
"Btu upgrading the Cuban League's accommodations wasn't Maduro's only goal when he and Miguel 'Miguelito' Suarez, his partner in La Compania Operadora Stadiumd, built El Gran Stadium with the backing from the Bacardi Rum Company. Maduro's ultimate goal was to bring a Major League team to Havana, and the Sugar Kings were the next step in accomplishing that aspiration."
This grand vision never came true, as professional baseball became one of the many victims of Castro’s Communist revolution. American players stopped participating in the Cuban League, and
Cuban teams moved to an amateur, state‑sponsored model.
Focusing on the final three seasons of the Cuban League (1958–61) and the final two seasons of the Havana Sugar Kings (1959–60), Last Seasons in Havana explores how Castro’s rise to power forever altered Cuba and the course of a sport that had become ingrained in the island’s culture over the course of almost a century.
Once Upon a Team: The Epic Rise and HIstoric Fall of Baseball's Wilmington Quicksteps
By Jon Springer
Sports Publishing; hardcover, 240 pages; $24.99
Professional baseball was barely into its adolescence in 1884 when a hard-playing, hard-drinking minor league club out of tiny Wilmington, Delaware, named the Quicksteps, got the opportunity of a lifetime.
Jon Springer, the founder and operator of the Mets by the Numbers website (mbtn.net), tells the story of the Quicksteps in the book Once Upon A Team. They were led by archetypal stars Tommy “Oyster” Burns, who was "just nineteen years old, whose shrill voice and constant field chatter irritated umpires and opponents alike, and Edward “The Only” Nolan, "the eccentric pitcher, who'd joined the Wilmington club only after having caroused his way off several big-league teams in his career."
The Quicksteps attacked opponents with a spike-sharpened, rough-and-tumble approach to the game that was only then coming into style, including Nolan’s revolutionary delivery, the curveball.
The Quicksteps were managed by a wise cricket veteran and bankrolled by a cigar-chewing sporting goods dealer who ran illicit gambling rings by night. They played to an .800 winning percentage in the minors and held their own in exhibitions with big league clubs, making them the talk of the town.
"The date was Friday, July 18, 1884," writes Springer of one of their games against a team from the major-league American Association.
"The occasion was a victory in a baseball game - but the celebration was about something more. That afternoon, Wilmington's minor league baseball team, popularly known as the Quicksteps, had defeated the visiting Brooklyn Atlantics, a major league team, by a score of 5-4. Though the game was only an exhibition with no bearing on the standings of their respective leagues, for Wilmington the win was another milestone conquered in a summer full of them. In only the second season during which Wilmington participated in a professional baseball league, they were unquestionably the class of their circuit and arguably the best minor league team in the country. When Brooklyn came calling - stopping in overnight for an exhibition on its way from a league game in Baltimore - Wilmington had won 39 of its first 49 games in the Eastern League, a forerunner of today's Class AAA International League. The magic number countdown was on. So they drank to victory.
"While the Atlantics were hardly a powerhouse - they were on their way to finishing 9th in the 12-team American Association, and had rested their top pitcher, Sam Kimber, that afternoon - the win added to the growing confidence that the Quicksteps could be competitive with the finest clubs in the land. It was hard to overlook the fact that only a year before, Wilmington and Brooklyn had been combatants in the minor Interstate League. Brooklyn, which won the Interstate championship that year, made the jump to the American Association in 1884. What was to stop Wilmington from doing the same? They toasted to the future."
The National League was less than a decade old then, and the American Association, which had been established two years earlier, was nipping at its heels. On the horizon would be a third major league, the Union Association, established by a maverick millionaire named Henry V. Lucas, which sent the pro game into chaos.
When the ensuing battle for players and fans claimed the life of the Union Association’s Philadelphia Keystones, the Quicksteps, in an extraordinary remedy, were abruptly promoted to the league to take their place—team, stadium, and city in a single fell swoop. However, their arrival in the majors was anything but a dream come true.
As the first shots were fired in a near century-long battle for player rights, mass defections and a comedy of on-field error and misfortune resigned the Quicksteps to a virtually unassailable record for baseball futility.
Loaded with colorful characters, highlight plays and behind-the-scenes drama, Once Upon a Team tells the forgotten true story of a tumultuous and remarkable summer; a team driven and summarily destroyed by its own dream of success.
Warren Spahn: A Biography of the Legendary Lefty
By Lew Freedman
Sports Publishing; hardcover, 360 pages; $24.99
Warren Spahn is the winningest left-handed pitcher in baseball history with 363 victories. During his 21-year career, Spahn won 20+ games an incredible thirteen times, was a 17-time All Star, a Cy Young–award winner, and was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973.
Spahn's accomplishments expanded beyond the baseball field. In addition, Spahn was also a war hero, serving in World War II and awarded the Purple Heart.
In Warren Spahn, author Lew Freedman has written a definitive biography of the incredible lefty's storied life.
Known for his supremely high leg kick, Spahn became one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history. However, the road wasn’t as easy as it would seem.
Struggling in his major-league debut at age twenty, manager Casey Stengel demoted the young left-hander. It would be four years before Spahn would return to the diamond, as he received a calling of a different kind, one from his country.
Enlisting in the Army, Spahn would serve with distinction, seeing action in the Battle of the Bulge and the Ludendorff Bridge, and was awarded a battlefield commission, along with a Purple Heart.
Upon his return to the game, he would take the league by storm. Spahn dominated for over two decades, spending twenty years with the Braves, both in Boston and Milwaukee, as well as a season with the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants. Pitching into his mid-forties, he would throw two no-hitters at the advanced ages of thirty-nine and forty.
From his early days in Buffalo and young career, through his time and the military and all the way to the 1948 Boston Braves and “Spahn and Sain and Pray for Rain,” Freedman leaves no stone unturned in sharing the story of a man still considered the greatest left-handed pitcher to ever play the game.
Freedman writes of that 1948 Braves season, "Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain were never more important together than in 1948. There were several seasons when Spahn was better than he was in '48, but Sain posted the best year of his career that summer.
"Spahn won at least 20 games in a season thirteen times, but 1948 was not one of them. It will surprise baseball fans to learn that during this memorable Boston Braves season Spahn finished just 15-12. Yet somehow the Braves won the National League pennany, fulfilling the dream of owner Lou Perini and satisfying the disciplined hand of manager Billy Southworth.
"To some degree, it was an off-year for Spahn, but it did not matter because for one of the few times during that time period the Braves had a couple of extra guys who could buttress the two aces.
"Due to the overall excellence of that 91-62 club and the emergence of Spahn and Sain, the sprightly pen of newsman Gerald V. Hern gave fans forevermore a reason to explain at least the September run to the finish. In one of baseball's most enduring ditties (perhaps second in memory only to the poetic embrace of the Chicago Cubs' double play combination of the past, Tinkers to Evers to Chance, Hern coined a famous phrase about Spahn and Sain and praying for rain.
"While there was pitching help for the two stalwarts, it was neither overwhelming nor enduring and when in need Southworth always turned to a member of the 'S' duo. Jotting down his thoughts about the rotation for the Boston Post, Hern wrote:
First we'll use Spahn, then we'll use Sain,
Then an off day, followed by rain.
Back will come Spahn, followed by Sain,
And followed we hope, by two days of rain.
"Catchy phrasing it was. The poem then shrunk a bit to more succinctly be called 'Spahn and Sain and pray for rain.'
"That was the short version of the season. The Braves, under Perini's ownership and Southworth's field leadership, turned things around swiftly, leaving those horrible years of the early 1940s to the distant past."