Monday, March 29, 2021

Baseball Books To Welcome The New Season

Photo by Jason Schott.

Baseball's Opening Day is this Thursday, with the Yankees hosting the Toronto Blue Jays in front of a crowd at Yankee Stadium and the Mets will be in Washington to take on the Nationals. 

There are plenty of wonderful books to get you prepared for the upcoming season, including: K, by Tyler Kepner; Yogi, by Jon Pessah; The Game, by Jon Pessah; The New York Yankees of the 1950s, by David Fischer. Swing Kings, by Jared Diamond; The Called Shot, by Thomas Wolf; Doc, Donnie, The Kid, and Billy Brawl, by Chris Donnelly; Chumps to Champs, by Bill Pennington; and Bouton by Mitchell Nathanson.

K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches
By Tyler Kepner
Vintage Books Trade Paperback, 336 pages; $15.00

Tyler Kepner, the national baseball writer for the New York Times, gives an enchanting, enthralling history of the national pastime as told through the craft of pitching in his new book, K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches.

The amazing thing about a baseball is that it can we can grip it and hold it so many different ways, and even the slightest calibration can turn an ordinary pitch into a weapon to thwart the greatest hitters in the world.

Each pitch has its own history, evolving through the decades as the masters pass it down to the next generation. From the earliest days of the game, when Candy Cummings dreamed up the curveball while flinging clamshells on a Brooklyn beach, pitchers have never stopped innovating.

Kepner traces the colorful stories and fascinating folklore behind the ten major pitches. Each chapter highlights a different pitch, from the blazing fastball to the fluttering knuckleball to the slippery spitball. 

Based on years of archival research and interviews with more than three hundred people from Hall of Famers to the stars of today, Kepner brings readers inside the minds of combatants sixty feet, six inches apart.

K is filled with priceless insights from many of the best pitchers in baseball history like the one above from Mussina, including twenty-two Hall of Famers, from Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, and Nolan Ryan to Greg Maddux, Mariano Rivera, Mike Mussina and Clayton Kershaw.

Kepner, in a chat last year, said of the very positive reaction to his book, "That's been really rewarding. I really wanted people to appreciate pitching the way I do. My goal for the book was really the same as when I was coaching little league, you know, for my son, and I wanted people to come away from the experience loving baseball a little bit more and having fun with it, and I think that's what happened. People told me they really enjoyed the way it was written, and they really learned a little more. If you learn about baseball, that means you're curious about it and wanting to get even more out of it, so that's what's been great to see, that people really relate to it the way I hoped.

It also is great to pull out a ball while reading K, and learn all the grips of these pitches. Kepner said of that, "I wish we could have sold the book with a ball because I wrote it with a ball always handy. Most of the time when I was doing interviews, I often have a baseball that I can either show the person I'm interviewing and have him show me his grips or his release or if I was on the phone, I'd be listening to the guy and have the ball in my hand, trying to do what he did and just sort of understand the way he made that ball spin and everything. That was funny because that's exactly what it was like.

To read the rest of my conversation with Tyler from February 2020, click here:

Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask 

By Jon Pessah

Little, Brown and Company; hardcover, 544 pages; $30

Jon Pessah, the founding editor of ESPN the Magazine, as well as managing sports sections at Newsday and the Hartford Courant, and the author of The Game, which detailed Major League Baseball's labor strife, last year wrote the definitive biography of beloved Yankees icon Yogi Berra, winner of 10 World Series championships and a one-name superstar.

While revered as one of America's most-cherished heroes, there also is little known about Lawrence Peter "Yogi" Berra, who led the Yankees through their 1950s dynasty, the greatest era in the team's history. 

Pessah separates fact from fiction to reintroduce us to a kid from St. Louis' The Hill who turned into a New York legend. This brilliant but misunderstood ballplayer became not only a Hall of Fame catcher, but a war hero and a cultural icon whose fame went well past the baseball diamond.

On Yogi's impact on a burgeoning medium, Pessah said, "One of the things that really fascinated me about this book - I could've written it from just this perspective - Yogi is one of the first television stars in the country. Yogi's rise to fame, '49 through the '50s, tracks the rise of television. He was on television all the time; for one thing, the World Series, which he was in for every year but three of his 17 years on the Yankees, and the World Series back then is a seven-to-10 day Super Bowl, the whole country stops, everyone's listening to the World Series, starting now watching it, and he's on there all the time, and he's the best player on that team in the '50s, and on the Game of the Week they saw him, and on Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan and Jackie Gleason and Perry Como, he's on all the time. He's in cameos in movies with Marilyn Monroe, "The Seven Year Itch," and Cary Grant and Doris Day in "That Touch of Mink," they filmed it in '61, it came out in '62, I mean this guy was everywhere, and commercials, they they just fell in love with him. He was as ubiquitous of a person in America in the '50s as anyone in the country."

To read more of my conversation with Jon Pessah, here are the links:

Part 1 -

Part 2 -

The Game: Inside the Secret World of Major League Baseball's Power Brokers 

By Jon Pessah

Little, Brown and Company; 656 pages; hardcover, $30.00; paperback, $17.99

If you grew up like me and remember the 1994 strike ending the Yankees' chances at their first World Series championship since 1978, this is the book for you.

In his first book, which was released in 2015, Jon Pessah wrote the incredible story of power and money in Major League Baseball in the early 1990s. 

The owners are at war with each other, and their decades-long battle with the players has turned America against both sides, and the players' growing addiction to steroids is threatening the game's foundation.

This definitely was a tipping point for baseball, and by the fall of 1992, it already felt inevitable that the unthinkable was possible: that they might have to cancel the World Series for the first time ever. 

It was a struggle for power between three high-powered individuals: Commissioner Bud Selig, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, and players' union leader Don Fehr. Their battle ultimately ends up being an alliance by the end of the 1990s, and it turned baseball into a money-making machine that enriches all those involved.

Drawing on hundreds of extensive, exclusive interviews, Pessah tells the real story of baseball, played out against a tableau of stunning athletic feats, high-stakes public battles, and backroom political deals. It is the definitive account of how an enormous struggle for power turns a disaster into baseball's newest Golden Age.

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.

Swing Kings: The Inside Story of Baseball's Home Run Revolution

By Jared Diamond

William Morrow Paperbacks; 336 pages paperback; $17.99

Jared Diamond is the national baseball writer for the Wall Street Journal, and in this deeply researched book, he tells the captivating story of the home run boom. 

The 2019 season, the last full one before last year's was shortened because of the pandemic, set a new record for home runs, shattering the mark set a mere two years prior. It is a shift that has contributed to more strikeouts, longer games, and what feels like the logical conclusion of the analytics era.

Diamond reveals that the secret behind this unprecedented change in the game isn't steroids or the ball itself, but the most elemental explanation of all, the swing. He follows a group of elite players - Aaron Judge of the Yankees, J.D. Martinez of the Red Sox, and Justin Turner of the Dodgers among them - who rose to stardom after remaking their swings under the tutelage of rogue swing coaches who helped them usher the game into a new age.

These coaches, many of them baseball washouts, reinvented themselves as swing gurus, and were one of the game's best-kept secrets for years. There's a swimming pool contractor, the owner of a billiards hall, and an ex-hippie whose swing insights draw from surfing and the technique of Japanese samurai.

This motley crew has moved from the baseball margins to its center of power. They are changing the way hitting is taught to players of all ages, and Major League teams are in a race to hire them as coaches and consultants. 

Swing Kings is both a rollicking history of baseball's recent past and a deeply reported, character-driven account of a battle between opponents as old as time: old and new, change and stasis, the establishment and those who break from it.

The Called Shot: Babe Ruth, the Chicago Cubs, and the Unforgettable Major League Baseball Season of 1932

By Thomas Wolf

Nebraska Press; 408 pages; hardcover, $36.95; eBook, $18.95

In the summer of 1932, at the height of the Great Depression,  Americans were treated to one of the most thrilling seasons in baseball history, and while the sport provided a distraction, it also had the same edginess of the country. On-field fights were as common as double plays, and amid the National League pennant race, Cubs shortstop Billy Jurges was shot by showgirl Violet Popovich in a Chicago hotel room.

When the regular season ended, it was the Cubs and the perennial champion Yankees who would meet in the World Series. It would be Babe Ruth's last appearance in the Fall Classic.

The Yankees took the first two games in New York before the series headed to Chicago. At Wrigley Field for the third game of the series, Democratic presidential candidate Franklin Roosevelt was on hand to cheer for his hometown Yankees from box seats by their dugout.

The top of the fifth inning was when the game took a turn toward history. Ruth was getting booed mercilessly by Cubs players and fans, and in response, he gestured towards the outfield and then blasted a long home run. 

After Ruth rounded the bases, Roosevelt exclaimed, "Unbelievable!" and little did they know then, one of the greatest debated in baseball history was born. Did Ruth call his shot?

Doc, Donnie, The Kid, And Billy Brawl

By Chris Donnelly

Nebraska; hardcover; $29.95

The two things that are most remembered about New York baseball in the 1980s is the Mets breaking through to win the 19865 World Series and the Yankees never being able to win one despite winning the most regular season games in the decade.

Perhaps the most memorable season was 1985, when both teams were very good, and in the Mets' case, it was the best team they had in a while. It was the first time both teams were in contention for the playoffs so late in the season. Both teams came in second in their division, and since it was still an era where you had to win your division to make the playoffs, they were on the outside looking in.

Despite their nearly identical records, the two teams were drastically different in performance and clubhouse atmosphere. 

The Mets had young, homegrown talent led by outfielder Darryl  Strawberry and pitcher Dwight Gooden, which was complemented by veterans like first baseman Keith Hernandez, catcher Gary Carter, third baseman Ray Knight, and outfielder George Foster. It was a team that had gritty players who won over New York with their dirty uniforms, curtain calls, after-hours activities, and because ultimately they weren't the Yankees. It was a team Mets fans could be proud of again after the decline in the late 1970s after the trade of Tom Seaver.

The Yankees also were stocked with tons of talent, starting with Don Mattingly, Dave Winfieled, and Rickey Henderson in their lineup, and Ron Guidry and Phil Niekro anchoring the rotation. They were all overshadowed by their domineering owner, George Steinbrenner, whose daily intrusions made the team a daily soap opera. 

It is known mostly as the season in which Steinbrenner fired Yogi Berra just eight games into the season and brought back Billy Martin for a fourth tenure as manager. Dome of the turmoil included Henderson being suspended for missing two games, Lou Piniella nearly resigning as coach, and Martin punctured a lung and then gave drunken managerial instructions from his hospital room. Despite all that, the Yankees nearly won their division.

While the Mets' drama made them more endearing to their fans, the Yankees' clubhouse shenanigans had the opposite effect. It was a season in which the Mets won the battle for the hearts of New York fans for the first time since the late 1960s, and it would stay that way for nearly a decade.

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

Award-winning New York Times sportswriter Bill Pennington takes a look at an overlooked era in Yankees history in this wonderful book. He 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.

I chatted with Bill Pennington when the book was released a couple years ago and asked him if he thought younger fans who are used to how Hal Steinbrenner runs the Yankees in a very pragmatic way, will be surprised to read how George was and how chaotic it was around the Yankees 30 years ago, and he said: "I hope so, I think 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. 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."

To read my full chat with Bill Pennington from May 2019, click here:

Bouton: The Life Of A Baseball Original 

By Mitchell Nathanson

Nebraska; hardcover; $34.95

Jim Bouton was one of the most consequential people to ever play Major League Baseball. Known for pitching for the Yankees towards the end of their heyday in the 1960s, he is mostly remembered because of his memoir, Ball Four, which told the true story of what ballplayers were really like in an era when a lot of stuff was kept under wraps.

In Bouton: The Life of a Baseball Original, Mitchell Nathanson gives readers a look at Bouton's remarkable life. He tells about how Ball Four came into being, how it was received and how it forever changed the way not only sports books are viewed but professional sports as a whole. 

Nathanson provides insights into why Bouton saw the world the way he did, why he was so different than the thousands of players who came before him, and how, in the bottom-line world of professional baseball, he managed to  be both an insider and outsider at once.

From the say, he first stepped into the Yankees clubhouse, Bouton was the deceptive revolutionary. Underneath the crew cut and behind his all-American handsome look was a maverick with signature style. He spoke frankly about player salaries and mistreatment by management, advocated progressive politics, and tried to convince the United States to boycott the 1968 Olympics. Through it all, he confronted the conservative sports world and compelled it to catch up with a rapidly changing American society.

Bouton defied the odds to make the Yankees and won two games in the 1964 World Series, then went on to play for the Seattle Pilots in 1969, when Ball Four was released, and made an improbable comeback with the Atlanta Braves as a thirty-nine-year-old.

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