Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Baseball Books: On Three Historic Franchises

Yankee Stadium. Photo by Jason Schott.

It is always a good time to read about baseball, especially its legendary franchises, which these new books examine, The New York Yankees of the 1950s, and new editions of the If These Walls Could Talk series on the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs. These are also perfect for any baseball fans you have on your Christmas list.

The New York Yankees Of The 1950s: Mantle, Stengel, Berra, and a Decade of Dominance
By David Fischer
Lyons Press; hardcover, $26.95; eBook, $25.50

The New York Yankees have been a dominant team throughout their illustrious history, with a record 27 World Championships, but there is one decade that stands out.

The Yankees played in eight World Series from 1950 to 1959, winning six of them. 

David Fischer is the author of several books on the Yankees, and he brings his expertise to the saga of the most-dominant decade in baseball history, part of a defining moment for the nation. 

"With the ever-changing world as a backdrop, the Yankees were a constant, a dependable and reliable winner. Wearing their pinstriped uniform, the organization was the embodiment of American success. In fact, critics said rooting for the Yankees was like rooting for U.S. Steel, the corporate monopoly. But sports, and baseball in particular, are a microcosm of society. Among the most noteworthy highlights on the diamond was the gradual racial integration of the playing fields. By the mid-1950s, catcher Elston Howard became the first black player on the New York Yankees - one of Major League Baseball's last teams to become integrated.

"To be sure, the decade of the 1950s was a time when the country was moving toward a transformative change, and baseball was too, with the adjustment to such profound changes as night games, coast-to-coast travel, and the advent of television that brought the national pastime right into the living rooms of fans across the country. And fans that tuned in to watch the World Series, more often than not, saw the New York Yankees be crowned baseball champions once again."

The Yankees entered the fifties knowing that they would need to find a successor for the legendary Joe DiMaggio, and just like that, another one just as good, Mickey Mantle stepped right in.

Mantle was the epitome of the All-American kid from the heartland, and he blasted tape-measure home runs while battling leg ailments to become the biggest draw in baseball. He was the American League Most Valuable Player in 1956 and 1957, and won the Triple Crown (best average, most home runs, most RBI) in 1956.

"Few players in the history of baseball had as much talent as Mickey Mantle," writes Fischer. "The blond, broad-shouldered switch-hitter could blast the ball for tremendous distances from either side of the plate. He also had a fine throwing arm and blazing speed - he could run from home to first base faster from the right-handed batter's box than anybody in the majors got there from the left side. Headline writers referred to him as The Commerce Comet. Mantle's immense natural talent displayed on the diamond - that combination of power and speed - once prompted his manager, Casey Stengel, to say of his slugging center fielder: 'He should lead the league in everything.' In 1956, he nearly did."

There's plenty in The New York Yankees of the 1950s about Stengel and Mantle's teammates Whitey Ford, Billy Martin, Yogi Berra, and the rest of the greatest era in baseball history.

If These Walls Could Talk: Stories from the Boston Red Sox Dugout, Locker Room, and Press Box
By Jerry Remy and Nick Cafardo
Triumph Books; paperback; $17.95

After an 86-year championship rough, the Red Sox have epitomized baseball excellence, with four World Series championships since 2004.

Jerry Remy, who played seven seasons with the Red Sox and has been broadcasting the team's games on NESN for over 30 years, and Nick Cafardo, who was the national baseball writer for the Boston Globe until his untimely passing last February, observed that history up close and personal.

This book is perfect for any Red Sox fan, as you'll relive some of that history, from Remy's earliest memories of Ted Williams and playing with Carl Yastrzemski, known to most fans as simply Yaz, to his first-person accounts of the recent championship teams, to an honest recounting of his battles with depression, cancer, and tragedy.

"My favorite team of all time was the 2004 team," Remy writes. "They were a little bit off center, but they did something here that nobody else could ever do - at least not for 86 years. They won it all. They were a great bunch of guys to be around, they were fun, and they enjoyed baseball. Fenway Park and Boston didn't intimidate those guys like a lot of teams get intimidated playing here.

"They had so many characters on that club, like Johnny Damon, Kevin Millar, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Pedro Martinez, and Bronson Arroyo. They had really serious guys lie Bill Mueller, Mark Bellhorn, Jason Varitek, Trot Nixon, and Curt Schilling. They had a manager in Terry Francona who simply had the right touch and the patience to handle a group like that.

"This wasn't a team that breezed through anything. They finished second int he American League East with 98 wins, three games behind the Yankees, who won 101 games. They had to win it all from the wild card position, which meant no home-field advantage. They had to make a major trade at the deadline that year, parting with the beloved Nomar Garciaparra. But the deals that brought back Orlando Cabrera, Doug Mientkiewicz, and Dave Roberts were really the trigger to the remainder of the season which enabled them to win it all.

"What's lost is that they swept the Angels in the divisional series in three games. Nobody even mentioned that because what was to come was the most impressive thing I've ever seen in sports. It was a pretty special group because they had the ability, the mental strength to come back from an 0-3 deficit against the Yankees in the ALCS. It was the greatest comeback in sports. At least in my mind it was."

If These Walls Could Talk: Stories from the Chicago Cubs Dugout, Locker Room, and Press Box
By Jon Greenberg
Triumph Books; paperback; $17.95

The Chicago Cubs are one of the most storied franchises in baseball history, and their World Series championship in 2016, which broke a 108-year drought, will forever remain one of baseball's iconic moments.

Jon Greenberg of The Athletic Chicago provides insight into the inner sanctum of the Cubs, starting with the 2004 season, in which they missed the playoffs after nearly reaching the World Series the prior season, stretching through the 2007 and 2008 playoff teams, to the arrival of Theo Epstein as team president in 2012, the 2016 World Series team, up to today.

"The 2016 World Series was one curse vs. another," Greenberg writes. "The Cubs had the more famous one, and LeBron James had already ended Cleveland' civic title drought that summer.

"But while Cleveland won pennants in 1995 qand 1997, it hadn't won a World Series since 1948. Sure, the Cubs had 40 years on their Midwest peers, but Cleveland's all-around sporting misfortune was still lingering, despite the Cavs' title. At least the Cubs had Chicago. Cleveland, despite various improvements downtown and bustling suburbs, was Cleveland.

"Beyond the obvious poetic and historic importance, this series was a logistical dream. Wrigley Field and Progressive Field are separated by 351 miles, a 5 1/2 hour drive. Team Athletic drove to Cleveland, getting there just in time for media day.

"My angle that day was a feature story on Javy Baez and Francisco Lindor, two stylish infielders from Puerto Rico who went to high school in Florida and were drafted in the same class in 2011.

"They had a high school showdown in Orlando that was a big deal in scouting circles. Lindor played for Orlando's Monteverde Academy and Baez for the visiting Arlington Country Day School from Jacksonville.

"Because the game was during spring training, every baseball executive in the Grapefruit League was there, Cubs scouting director Tim Wilken remembered.

"'It was 150 [scouts] and his whole school was there,' Baez said. 'It was incredible to be in high school and having so many people watching you.'

"'I remember his team rolling up, with all the scouts walking as fast as they could,' Lindor said. "And him having BP, putting on a show for the scouts. Home runs everywhere. And they beat us. He had good game and I had a good game. It was cool playing in front of so many people and showing the world we could do it.'

"Jed Hoyer was the GM of the Padres that draft and he was smitten with Lindor. Wilken was in charge of the Cubs' draft and he loved Baez.

"During the World Series workout day in Cleveland, I talked ot Hoyer and Cubs minor league boss Jason McLeod about that draft.

"'He's like my favorite every in-person workout and meeting ever,' Hoyer said of Lindor. 'Jason Madison [a Cubs front office executive] and I went down and worked him out at his high school. What I remember the most was how much fun he had. He was a great kid, great personality. But he was just having fun. I remember at one point, I was kind of challenging him to do different things and he embraced all of it. 'Hit five balls off the screen' or 'Hit a double the other way.' He did it, but he was having fun doing it. I remember walking out of there and saying we're taking this guy if we have a chance to take him, without a doubt.'

"Unfortunately for Hoyer and the Padres, they had the 10th pick in the draft. Lindor went eighth to Cleveland, which was a bit of a surprise in the industry.

"'I was shocked,' Hoyer said. 'I was devastated. I had a man-crush on him.'

"Baez went ninth to the Cubs.

"'I knew the Cubs were going to take him based off a conversation I had with Tim Wilken right before the draft,' McLeod said. 'I asked him actually about Lindor. 'Are you going to take Lindor in front of us?' He said, 'My guy is Baez. If he's there, I'm going to take him.'"

Readers will take in the perspective of players, coaches, and personnel from this historic era of greatness, as well as defeat, making this essential for any fan of the Cubbies.

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