Wednesday, March 29, 2023

New Baseball Books To Usher In The Season


Photo by Jason Schott.

The baseball season opens on Thursday, with the Yankees hosting the San Francisco Giants, and the Mets taking on the Marlins in Miami.

One of the best ways to usher in the new season, full of hope, excitement and a renewal of the American pastime, is to dive into these new books on baseball: Thurm: Memories of a Forever Yankee, by Thurman Munson and Marty Appel; The Boston Globe Story of the Red Sox: More Than a Century of Championships, Challenges, and Characters, edited by Chad Finn; and A Damn Near Perfect Game; and Baseball's Endangered Species: Inside the Craft of Scouting by Those Who Lived It, by Lee Lowenfish.

Thurm: Memories of a Forever Yankee

By Thurman Munson and Marty Appel

Diversion Books; paperback, 240 pages; $18.99

Thurman Munson is the epitome of what it means to be a New York Yankee.

The first captain of the Yankees since Lou Gehrig, the hard-nosed catcher led the Bronx Bombers from one of the toughest eras in their history in the early seventies and was a big part of their two World Series championships, in 1977 and 1978. His life sadly was cut short when he died in a plane crash during the 1979 season when he was flying home on an off day.

Munson should be in the Hall of Fame, as he was the American League MVP in 1976, AL Rookie of the Year in 1970, a seven-time All-Star, and a winner of three Gold Gloves.

Thurm: Memories of a Forever Yankee is a new version of Munson's memoir that he wrote with Yankees historian and former public relations head, Marty Appel, and was released 45 years ago, in 1978. There is a new foreword by his wife Diana, who gives readers a look into the man dedicated to family and fans before himself. Appel also writes an introduction describing how the collaboration with Munson.

Appel writes, "When I first approached Thurman Munson with the idea of doing an autobiography, he was hesitant.

"'I'm only twenty-nine,' was his first reaction. 'A lot of life to go. It feels too early to do a book like this.'

"I agreed, but I said, 'It's sports. Books are written about sports figures in their twenties all the time. You won an MVP Award and you're captain of the New York Yankees. If you don't do it yourself, someone will write a book about you, and you'll probably hate it.'

"He laughed, but he knew I was right. He didn't have much of a relationship with any of the sportswriters who were regularly around the team - although, quietly, he actually had a few friendships there and I know he offered to pay for one writer to bring his kids to spring training. In comparison, I seemed like someone who he could work with. My career in Yankees public relations matched his - we both started in 1968, the year he was drafted - and I certainly knew the subject matter and the points to hit about his professional career. I was no longer working for the team so I could have some independence with the story without needed Yankee management's approval.

"That was fine with him because he was going through a rough patch with the Yankees. He spoke openly of a desire to get traded to Cleveland where he could be close to his growing family. That mattered more to him than his baseball career. And he knew he could use the newly formed free agency option to go to Cleveland. So, he leveled with his boss, George Steinbrenner, a fellow hard-headed Ohioan, and said, 'Get something for me while you can or I'll leave and you'll get nothing.' Munson saw the whole big picture of unfolding free agency implications. Meanwhile, he was captaining the championship-caliber Yankees. He loved winning. He loved holding the trophy. It was a powerful lure to stay. The conflicts all led to a compelling drama, which we knew would be part of the story."

The legendary Yankees catcher chronicled in his own words his path to the Major Leagues, his career success, and his approach to being the first captain in The Bronx in nearly forty years. He also talked about how his body was breaking down as he gave his all to the sport, and his devotion to his wife and children above all else.

Munson, an Ohio native, didn't take long to make it to Yankee Stadium, and he played in an age of Hall of Famers. He had a fierce rivarly with Boston Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk, and a competitive relationship with teammate Reggie Jackson, whom the Yankees brought in before the 1977 season and proclaimed that he was "the straw that stirred the drink." Munson also wrote about how he clashed with new Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who bought the team in 1973, and he also shares stories about catching for pitchers such as Ron Guidry, Catfish Hunter, and Goose Gossage, who all later attributed their success to Munson.

For more information on how to get your copy of Thurm on Amazon, please click here.

The Boston Globe Story of the Red Sox: More Than a Century of Championships, Challenges, and Characters

By The Boston Globe; Edited by Chad Finn; Foreword by Dennis Eckersley

Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers; hardcover, 432 pages; $30

The Boston Red Sox have one of the richest histories in baseball, filled with legendary players like Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and David Ortiz, and after winning five World Series in their first two decades, then endured the Curse of the Bambino after they sold Ruth to the Yankees in 1919. They would go 86 years without a championship before winning the World Series in 2004, and three more since then to be the most successful team in this century.

It all is chronicled in the beautiful coffee table book, The Boston Globe Story of Red Sox, in which you can trace this storied franchise from the beginning, in 1901, when they were known as the Boston Americans, as it happened through the articles, features, and lens of one of the best newspapers in the country.

There are more than 300 articles, as told through the best sports writing and coverage by the beloved Globe reporters through the years, such as Bob Ryan, Dan Shaughnessy, Peter Gammons, Jackie MacMullan, and Will McDonough, and led by veteran sports columnist and an EPPY Award finalist Chad Finn.

There is a foreword from former Red Sox pitcher and NESN announcer Dennis Eckersley, and illustrated with hundreds of photographs through every era, and updated through 2022. Some of the moments you will read about include Fenway Park's Opening Day in 1912; Ted Williams' 1941 season, in which he hit over .400, the last player to do so; Carl Yastrzemski's Triple Crown and the 1967 Impossible Dream; Carlton Fisk waving his home run fair in the 1975 World Series; Jim Rice's sensational 1978 season; Pedro Martinez striking out five at the 1999 All-Star Game at Fenway; Breaking the Curse of the Bambino in 2004; and the 2018 World Series championship team's franchise-record 119 wins.

Finn writes of the state of the Red Sox before and after their third World Series championship with Ruth in 1918: "They were a juggernaut. But owner Harry Frazee, weary of Ruth's antics and salary demands, sold the superstar to the Yankees for $125,000, and all of a sudden, that juggernaut became a recurring could-not in the biggest moments. Through the generations, the Red Sox played in some of the most memorable World Series (1946, 1967, 1975, 1986) and single-games (a one-game playoff versus the Yankees to determine the AL East champion in 1978). Not once, for 86 aching years, did they emerge a champion.

The recurring agony of the Red Sox snatching defeat from the jaws of victory became so familiar that 'the Curse of the Bambino' - a theory espoused by Globe sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy in his 1990 book, which posited that Ruth put a curse on the franchise after his sale - became the conventional wisdom, particularly on national television broadcasts that belabored the doomed Red Sox plotline, especially when they played the Yankees.

The truth was always more nuanced than a curse. For instance, perhaps Williams would have played in more than one World Series in his career had owner Tom Yawkey and the Red Sox not been the last Major League team to integrate. The Red Sox first called up a Black player in 1959, infielder Pumpsie Green, a dozen years after Jackie Robinson had broken the color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The shame of their racial history hovered over the franchise for decades.

In 2004, two years after John W. Henry purchased the franchise from the Yawkey Trust for approximately $799 million (he later purchased the Globe in 2013), the Red Sox ended the curse in the most satisfying way possible, rallying from a 3-0 series deficit to vanquish the Yankees, then sweeping the Cardinals in a World Series that brought catharsis to generations of Red Sox fans. The franchise would win four World Series (2007, 2013, and 2018 on top of 2004) in a 15-year span. Curse? What curse? All ghosts were officially exorcised.

By the time the Red Sox got around to winning it all in 2004, the roster was a melting pot. That team featured three of the most charismatic superstars in franchise lore: David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, and the ace Pedro Martinez. Whether they were fielding championship-caliber clubs. enduring lost seasons (the 1920s were particularly rough), or producing assorted contenders and pretenders in between, the Red Sox almost always featured superstars."

Baseball's Endangered Species: Inside the Craft of Scouting by Those Who Lived It

By Lee Lowenfish

University of Nebraska Press; 344 pages; hardcover, $34.95; eBook, $34.95; available on Saturday, April 1 

Scouts have always been an intricate part of baseball, and it has been called the game's personalized way of renewing itself from year to year and a pathway to the game's past. It takes a special kind of person to be a scout, as travel is a constant companion, but for those with the genuine calling for it, there could be no other life.

When a scout hears the special crack of the bat indicating a raw prospect may be the real deal is the dream for them, along with the difficult task of not only discovering and signing new players, but envisioning the trajectory of raw talent into the future. For example, just imagine being the scout who discovered Derek Jeter.

Lee Lowenfish is a freelance writer and cultural historian who is the author of Branch Rickey: Baseball's Ferocious Gentleman (Bison Books, 2009) and The Imperfect Diamond: A History of Baseball's Labor Wars (Bison Books, 2010). 

In the new book, Baseball's Endangered Species, Lowenfish explores how scouting has been affected by the surging use of metrics and other changes in modern baseball business history. This began with the expansion of the Major Leagues in 1962, the introduction of the amateur free agent draft in 1965, and the coming of Major League free agency after the 1976 season. 

In the past decade alone, scouting has been under many threats. In 2016, Major League Baseball eliminated the MLB Scouting Bureau that was created in the 1970s to augment the regular scouting staffs of individual teams. 

The following year, the Houston Astros dismissed ten professional scouts ahead of the playoffs, which would end with them winning the franchise's first World Series championship. By 2019, the Astros halved the number of scouts to less than twenty.

Increasingly, teams are replacing their experiences talent hunters with people who specialize in digital video and analytics, but who have limited field knowledge of the game. This trend began just over 20 years ago with Moneyball, as the Billy Beane-led Oakland Athletics adopted a strategy that favored analytics, data, and algorithms over instinct and observation. It was rooted in the idea that finding "undervalued assets" could replace traditional scouting. The book by Michael Lewis came out in 2003, and that contributed to a wave of more than a hundred scouts being fired, and when the movie came out in 2011, another wave of dismissals came with it.

Lowenfish writes, "The Washington Nationals' surprise triumph over the Houston Astros in the 2019 World Series brought special delight to traditional baseball scouts because Nats general manager Mike Rizzo, himself a former scout and the son of longtime scout Phil Rizzo, surrounded himself with several advance scouts throughout the regular season and playoffs. On the other hand, the Astros, one of the most analytically inclined of the thirty Major League teams, eliminated virtually all of their traditional scouts. This development was as ignominous as the revelation of their high-tech and low-tech sign-stealing operation during the 2017 season.

"It remains to be seen whether 'eyes and ears' scouts will make a comeback in the foreseeable future. An enormous amount of money and publicity has poured into the so-called advanced-metrics revolution in baseball. A growing number of organizations believe that you can better scout amateur players through high-tech video and other new measuring devices...

"Baseball always has room for more information and insights. When Branch Rickey was once asked by scout Leon Hamilton how much of baseball he really knew, he replied, 'I question whether I know fifty-five percent of baseball.' He was eager to learn more about the fascinating and often confounding game. As am I. Like Rickey, I don't belong to an old guard that refuses to reexamine old shibboleths. But I do firmly believe that it is time for a reexamination of the Moneyball and better-ball crazes...There is plenty of wisdom in the old scouting adage 'God gave you two ears and two eyes and only one mouth,' so it helps to use sight and sound more than one's own voice. Another memorable old scout saying is 'Those who can, evaluate; those who can't, measure."

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