Thursday, December 12, 2019

Books: Biographies Of Baseball Legends Banks, Tiant & Edgar

Photo by Jason Schott.

The baseball offseason is underway, and with that, a time to take a step back and read about the history of the game. There are new biographies on three of baseball's most legendary figures, Let's Play Two: The Life and Times of Ernie Banks, by Doug Wilson; Son of Havana: A Baseball Journey from Cuba to the Big Leagues and Back, by Luis Tiant, with Saul Wisnia; and Edgar: An Autobiography, by Edgar Martinez, with Larry Stone.

Let's Play Two: The Life and Times of Ernie Banks
By Doug Wilson
Rowman & Littlefield; hardcover, $24.95; eBook, $23.99

Ernie Banks was known as Mr. Cub and he was renowned for his boundless optimism, encapsulated by the phrase that makes the title of this book: Let's play two.

When he passed away in 2015, he was regarded as one of the most beloved men in baseball history. He started his career as the shortstop of the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues as a teenager before becoming the first African-American to play for the Chicago Cubs. He brought exceptional talent, as well that his sunny outlook on life, and he went on to a Hall of Fame career and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In Let's Play Two: The Life and Times of Ernie Banks, Doug Wilson explores the life of this immortal baseball figure, from growing up in the segregated South to his last few years with public battles over his remains and will. Drawing on interviews with those close to Mr. Cub, Wilson presents a portrait of not just an athlete, but a complex man with ambitious goals and hidden plans.

Banks' enthusiasm and skill helped him transcend issues of race and helped him become one of the most highly-regarded men in baseball, who left a legacy of greatness behind.

Son of Havana: A Baseball Journey from Cuba to the Big Leagues and Back
By Luis Tiant, with Saul Wisnia 
Diversion Books; hardcover,312 pages; $25.99

When Luis Tiant arrived in Boston in 1971 with crippling injuries that tore away his shoulder ligaments, Red Sox fans weren't too excited about the Cuban pitcher. The headlines didn't trumpet his arrival, but were just complaints about an aging, sore-armed pitcher.

Incredibly, by the time of the 1975 World Series, Red Sox fans came to calling him "El Tiante" and filled Fenway Park with chants of "LOO-EEE! LOO-EEE! LOO-EEE" With a thick belly and Fu Manchu mustache, Tiant didn't look like the lean, sculpted aces he was pitching against - and he didn't pitch like them either. The arsenal of pitches he had and his herky-jerly pirouette of a windup made him one-of-a-kind.

In the new book Son of Havana, Tiant details for the first time his complete baseball odyssey. While still a teenager, Tiant began his professional baseball career in 1959 for the Mexico City Tigers, while also playing winter ball for the Havana Sugar Kings. 

A promotion to the Major Leagues seemed imminent when, in the summer of 1961, his father sent him a letter, telling him, "Don't come back. If you do come home, I don't think you'll be able to get out again. They are not letting many people leave the island, especially young men of military age."

Tiant did begin his journey to the Majors, as he was acquired by the Cleveland Indians. However, because Fidel Castro closed off Cuba, it would be fifteen years before he saw his family again, and nearly half a century before he could return to his homeland.

After climbing through the Indians' system and having to play in the Deep South minor leagues, Tiant established himself as a star, leading the American League in ERA and shutouts in 1968. The workhorse load on his arm, including offseason competition, took its toll, and that's how he ended up in Boston in 1971 as a broken pitcher.

Tiant then reinvented himself on the mound, and his performance in the 1975 World Series is etched in baseball lore. During that series, he had a reunion with his family, set free by Castro to see their son pitch. 

By 1978, having amassed Hall of Fame numbers in Boston, he signed with the Yankees. To Red Sox fans, it felt like a betrayal of heroic proportions. Tiant retired in the early 1980s with the most wins by a Cuban-born pitcher. He spent his post-playing career as a college baseball coach, Red Sox pitching consultant, and a baseball ambassador.

In 2007, he made his emotional return to Cuba after more than forty years, and in 2016, he threw out the first pitch when Major League Baseball held an exhibition game in his homeland.

Edgar: An Autobiography
By Edgar Martinez, with Larry Stone
Triumph Books; hardcover, 352 pages; $28.00

Edgar Martinez was one of the most feared hitters in baseball history, leading the Seattle Mariners to postseason glory in the 1990s, and a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame this past summer.

Patience, persistence, and the most unlikely of circumstances vaunted Edgar from a poor neighborhood in Durado, Puerto Rico, where he honed his batting skills by hitting rocks in his backyard and swinging at individual raindrops during storms.

Loyal and strong-willed from a young age, he made the difficult decision at age 11 to stay home while his parents relocated to New York. He attended school, and then worked multiple jobs before getting a tryout with the Mariners when he was 20 years old. He spent his entire 18-year career in Seattle. 

Highlights of his time with the Mariners include when he got the winning hit to beat the Yankees in the 1995 American League Division Series, and then after a few more postseason appearances, when they won 116 games in 2001.

Martinez shares the stories of his life with candor, characteristic humility, and surprising wit. He discusses playing with Ken Griffey, Jr., who writes the foreword to Edgar, Alex Rodriguez, and Randy Johnson, and life after retirement as a family man, social advocate, and Mariners hitting coach.

Edgar offers insights into the mental side of baseball and his training regimen, detailing how he taught himself to see the ball better than so many before and after him.

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