Monday, May 6, 2019

Books: On What Makes Baseball Special

Yankee Stadium's famous facade. Photo by Jason Schott.

With the baseball season in full swing, it's time to take a look back at the history of the game and what makes it so special. Let's take a look at some new books that will illuminate your thinking of the All-American game: Chumps to Champs: How the Worst Teams in Yankees History Led to the 90's Dynasty by Bill Pennington; Wrigley Field Year by Year by Sam Pathy and John Thorn; and When The Crowd Didn't Roar by Kevin Cowherd.
Chumps to Champs: How the Worst Teams in Yankees History Led to the 90's Dynasty
By Bill Pennington
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; hardcover; $28.00; available Tuesday, May 7

Award-winning New York Times sportswriter Bill Pennington takes a look at an overlooked era in Yankees history in his new book, Chumps to Champs: How the Worst Teams in Yankees History Led to the 90's Dynasty.
Pennington examines the period from 1989 to 1992 when the Yankees were at the bottom of the standings, team owner George Steinbrenner was suspended from baseball, they went through managers at a torrid pace, they were sitting on a 14-year World Series drought, and had a 35 percent drop in attendance.
What came out of the worst period in the team's history was the makings of the late-1990s dynasty as General Manager Gene Michael, who ran the organization while Steinbrenner was suspended, was able to rebuild from the bottom up by drafting Derek Jeter Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams, and Andy Pettitte, while also making trades for veterans like Paul O'Neill that fit into how he knew the team had to play if they were going to win.
"One of my intentions with this book was clearly to explain to people that I think never really knew how bad things had gotten, or had forgotten how bad things had gotten," Pennington told me in a recent interview. "This is how I really came up with the idea to write the book is, my sense is that Yankee fans kind thought that the Yankees win championships in every decade and there was this uninterrupted line from Ruth to DiMaggio to Mantle to Munson to Jeter and Rivera and there was no in-between when, in fact, there was this awful period where they were really, really bad, especially in '89 and '90. Those are the worst teams in the history of the franchise.
"I do think that baseball fans in general and Yankees fans have just forgotten that the empire was crumbling in every way: attendance was down 35 percent, the TV ratings were plummeting, George had been permanently suspended - permanently suspended from baseball for paying a gambler for dirt on his best player, which was an embarrassing scandal and a stain on the Yankees' name and reputation. Things were really bad, but of course, that's what makes this kind of interesting, you know, and the fascinating, unexpected twist is that behind the scenes they were building a new empire and it becomes a story of resurrection and redemption, not failure, so that's the story I wanted to tell."
Pennington said of Gene Michael's place in Yankees history, "He was with the team so long as a player and an executive, and highly influential. I don't know where to rank him, but let's put it this way: he's as important as an executive as they've had in terms of a GM or anybody like that. I guess George Steinbrenner had more overall influence on the franchise, but not always in a good way. Gene had influence on the 1970s Yankees as both a coach and as an advanced scout, so he had influence on those teams, he kept things afloat periodically in the '80s, and then without question, he's the architect, more so than anyone else, of what becomes the last baseball dynasty of the 20th century.
"Gene was ahead of his time, too. In doing the research for this book, I had always known that he really valued on-base percentage way before anyone else was talking about on-base percentage. That was his mantra, that was the most important thing to him. There were some other sorts of what later became "Moneyball" or analytic techniques and methods that he employed.
"He had a lot of different theories that were kind of way before their time and then he built the 1990s Yankees that way, too. Everybody talks about culture in the clubhouse, no, he was talking about that in the early '90s. It was very key to him to have the right kinds of players and the right mix of players. Really smart guy - anybody who really spent time around Gene Michael knew how smart he was, and what a good and wise baseball guy he was. He had the right personality for handling George and, you know, handling the high, intense sort of pressure and atmosphere that was in The Bronx a lot. He was a really gifted guy."

To read the complete interview with Bill Pennington, click here:

Wrigley Field Year by Year: A Century at the Friendly Confines
By Sam Pathy and John Thorn
Sports Publishing; hardcover, 400 pages; $35.00; available Tuesday, May 7

Wrigley Field Year by Year, originally published in 2014 and now in its third edition and updated through the 2018 season, is the result of a quarter century of meticulous research.
Written by a baseball historian and recognized authority on the “Friendly Confines,” this is the first book to detail each year of the storied park’s existence, this lavishly illustrated coffee table book is very readable.
The book covers not only the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago Federal League baseball teams in detail, it touches on the Chicago Bears football team, basketball, hockey, high school sports, track and field, and political rallies. It references activities and changes throughout the park and in its neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side.
The year-by-year coverage includes a “game of the year,” a description of unusual and interesting happenings in the ballpark, and a quote from the year that best captures its essence. There are also pertinent Cubs statistics, 
In addition to this format, there are also nine chapters that divide Wrigley Field’s rich history into nine “innings” along with informative appendixes that will delight every Cubs fan, from the casual to the obsessed.
Thorn writes, "Wrigley Field's continued existence is a principal element of its charm, just as baseball's past is an enduring feature of its present. To describe Wrigley as a vibrant anachronism is to describe the game itself. Larry Ritter, author of the classic Glory of Their Times, liked to remind his friends that 'The best part of baseball today is its yesterdays.' This cannot be said of any other sport, and cannot be said more fervently of any other National League park.
"To survey the landscape of baseball and Wrigley's part in it, consider that only Boston's Fenway Park is older (by two years) and that the next oldest ball yard is Dodger Stadium - younger by nearly half a century. Your dad took you to a game here. And his dad took him, maybe sat in this section over here, sharing a bag of peanuts. And moms and daughters have come to Wrigley, too, through five generations. Ordinary people, they live on as ghosts, alongside departed Cub greats Three Finger Brown and Rogers Hornsby and Phil Cavaretta and Ron Santo. Opponents Honus Wagner and Christy Mathewson played here, and so did Hank Greenberg and Babe Ruth, who may or may not have called his shot in Game Three of the 1932 World Series.
"This is where the All American Girls Professional Baseball League was formed, in 1943. This is where the Chicago Bears of Red Grange, Sid Luckman, and pro football's first black quarterback, the aptly named Willie Thrower, long cavorted. Wrigley Field is the lone remaining ballpark where Jackie Robinson played.
"This is where Gabby Hartnett hit his homerin the gloamin', where Ernie Banks won two MVP awards with crummy clubs, where Kerry Wood struck out 20, where Sammy Sosa thrilled a nation. This is Wrigley Field, a shrine of baseball, a Chicago landmark, a national treasure, a museum of a million memories."
Wrigley Field Year by Year's easy-to-use format and wealth of information make it a resource that readers will turn to again and again.

When The Crowd Didn't Roar: How Baseball's Strangest Game Ever Gave A Broken City Hope
By Kevin Cowherd
Nebraska University Press; hardcover, 192 pages; $27.95

On April 29, 2015, one of the greatest baseball games happened, simply because it was played.
Baltimore was reeling from the devastating riots sparked by the death in police custody of twenty-five-year-old African American Freddie Gray. Less than thirty-six hours after the worst rioting Baltimore has seen since the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, the Baltimore Orioles and the Chicago White Sox take the field at Camden Yards.
It is a surreal event they will never forget: the only Major League game ever played without fans. The eerily quiet stadium is on lockdown for public safety and because police are needed elsewhere to keep the tense city from exploding.
Kevin Cowherd, an award-winning sports columnist who worked for the Baltimore Sun for 32 years, has written When the Crowd Didn’t Roar to chronicle this unsettling contest, the tragic events that led up to it, and the therapeutic effect the game had on a troubled city.
In its own way, amid the uprising and great turmoil, baseball stopped to reflect on the fact that something different was happening in Baltimore and responded to it in an unprecedented way, making this the unlikeliest and strangest game ever played.
Cowherd writes, "The first pitch is officially recorded at 2:06 p.m. It's an eighty-even-mile-per-hour fastball from (Orioles starting pitcher) Ubaldo Jimenez that the White Sox's leadoff batter, Adam Eaton, takes for strike one.
"Even though this might be the fattest pitch he'll see any day the bat never moves off Eaton's shoulder. Given the somnambulant atmosphere it's fair to wonder if he hasn't dozed off for a second.
"Before stepping into the batter's box Eaton had assumed that the natural rhythm of the game and the competitive juices of the players would provide enough sizzle to compensate for the lack of fan noise.
"But now he sees how wrong he was.
"Now he realizes how much he and his teammates feed off a big crowd - whether it's pulling for you or calling for you, your mother, your entire family plus your dog, to die in the most horrible, painful way.
"He steps out, smooths the dirt in the box, and taps both cleats with his bat. He shakes his head almost imperceptibly and chomps furiously on his gum, seemingly trying to refocus.
"'And this history-making ballgame is now officially in the books as having begun,' Gary Thorne declares.
"To Caleb Joseph, squatting behind the plate, the lack of reaction to the pitch by all parties in this hermetic ballpark is almost comical.
"'What planet are we on? he wonders. At any normal game, the crowd would erupt in wild cheering for the first strike. It's practically the law...
"Not only was there no response to that pitch, Joseph thinks, but the 'Strike!' call by home-plate umpire Jerry Layne felt all wrong, too. Layne, the crew chief and a twenty-six-year veteran, is not the most animated under the best of circumstances, Joseph knows."
The story comes vividly to life through the eyes of city leaders, activists, police officials, and the media that covered the tumultuous unrest on the streets of Baltimore, as well as the ballplayers, umpires, managers, and front-office personnel of the teams that played in this singular game, and the fans who watched it from behind locked gates.
Cowherd writes of those fans, "Out beyond the left-field wall, so far away that they appear to be in another zip code, a loud contingent of Orioles fans is on hand.
"That they would show up at here in their orange and black gear, faces pressed through the wrought-iron railings to get even a few inches closer to the action, surprises absolutely no one who pays attention to this franchise.
"For fourteen dreary seasons, from 1998 through 2011, Orioles fans were forced to watch some of the most horrid big-league baseball on the planet, played by some of the most inept teams imaginable, led by a succession of frustrated, overwhelmed, and, in many cases, spectacularly inept managers.
"Those were the fourteen losing seasons that spawned talk of a legendary 'Lost Generation of Orioles fans,' which proved to be more myth than reality. Because still the fans came out. Maybe not in quite the same numbers as before. But there was no way that a majority of the base, as hard-core and devoted as any in the game, would turn its back on its team.
"Yet not until after Buck Showalter - to many, the living incarnation of the sainted Earl Weaver, the best manager in franchise history - was hired in 2010 and Dan Duquette came aboard the following year did the losing stop. Then attendance at Camden Yards spiked even higher and the love affair between a city and its baseball team deepened."

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