Sunday, April 2, 2023

Part 2: New Baseball Books To Usher In The Season

Photo by Jason Schott.


The much-anticipated baseball season in New York opened this weekend, as the Yankees hosted the San Francisco Giants, and the Mets battled 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: The Called Shot: Babe Ruth, The Chicago Cubs & The Unforgettable Major League Baseball Season of 1932, by Thomas Wolf; A Damn Near Perfect Game: Reclaiming America's Pastime, by Joe Kelly with Rob Bradford; The Called Shot: Babe Ruth, The Chicago Cubs & The Unforgettable Major League Baseball Season of 1932, by Thomas Wolf; No Place I Would Rather Be: Roger Angell and a Life in Baseball Writing, by Joe Bonomo; and Winning Fixes Everything: How Baseball's Brightest Minds Created Sports' Biggest Mess, by Evan Drellich.

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

By Thomas Wolf

Nebraska Press; new in paperback, $27.95; and previously released hardcover, $36.95, and 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, as Wolf writes, "Ruth's task was to concentrate on the moment. A Major League pitch takes about one second to go from the pitcher's hand to the catcher's mitt. We know from Hugh Fullerton's experiment at Columbia University in 1921 that Ruth had unusual powers of concentration.

"Consider also that the Cubs in their dugout were doing everything possible to disturb Ruth's frame of mind; they were screaming insults at Ruth. The next day the New York Times would publish an article on the game in which the writer would benignly comment that the Cubs 'directed some uncomplimentary remarks at [Ruth].'

"The leading bench jockeys on the Cubs were Burleigh Grimes and Guy Bush. They were on the top steps of the dugout. Bush cupped his hands around his mouth so that his words would travel unambiguously to Ruth's ears. The remarks - to contradict the Times reporter - were much harsher than 'uncomplimentary.' Ruth's physique and manhood and racial heritage were called into question."

In response, Ruth, who had been engaging with the Cubs' dugout all game, gestured towards the outfield, and he blasted a long home run. After Ruth rounded the bases, Roosevelt exclaimed, "Unbelievable!" and little did they know then, one of the greatest debates in baseball history was born. Did Ruth call his shot?

This was named a Best Baseball Book of 2020 from Sports Collector's Digest and a 2021 Seymour Medal Finalist when it was originally released three years ago.

A Damn Near Perfect Game: Reclaiming America's Pastime

By Joe Kelly with Rob Bradford

Diversion Books; hardcover, 288 pages; $28.99

Joe Kelly is one of the most recognizable relief pitchers in Major League Baseball, and is currently a member of the Chicago White Sox. He has also pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals, who drafted him in the third round of the draft in 2009; the Boston Red Sox, whom he won the 2018 World Series with; and the Los Angeles Dodgers, where he won another ring in 2020.

Kelly also is known for that pout, as pictured on the cover, that he directed at Carlos Correa of the Houston Astros in July of 2020 when the Dodgers played Houston for the first time after it was revealed that Houston cheated to beat them in the 2017 World Series.

In A Damn Near Perfect Game, the intense Kelly brings the heat in a book that calls out the hacks, cheats, ridiculous rules, and more that have tarnished all aspects of the game, from the field of play to the clubhouse, front office, even the broadcast booth. This is the loudest insider's expose since Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton's Ball Four in 1970.

Kelly has a plan to make baseball pure, fun, and yes, damn near perfect. He takes on the new rule changes, such as the pitch clock, and baseball hacks, such as analytics, shifts, sign-stealing, and more. He also illustrates how baseball can be marketed to a new generation, by letting the players get edgy on social media, merchandising in trend-setting ways, and encourage actual emotion, such as letting the players fight, flip their bats when they get a big hit, and taking smack. Last, but certainly not least, he has some pointed opinions about what's wrong in the Commissioner's Office and in front offices of the ballclubs.

Kelly makes his case for the national pastime in this excerpt:

"Wake up!

Put down your phone. Pause those video games. Stop looking at your smartwatch.

Baseball is waiting for you.

I'm talking to the fans. I'm talking to the kids. I'm talking to the parents. I'm talking to those who gave up on the game, or those who never took the time to introduce themselves to it in the first place. I'm talking to the players. I'm talking to the coaches. I'm talking to the owners. I'm talking to the commissioner.

Consider these words to be freezing cold water splashed on your face. Jump up and soak it all in. It's unfortunate that we have gotten to this point where such an awakening is necessary, but so be it. Here you go. This is a straight ball right down the middle. Baseball is a gift; now it's time to unwrap it.

There aren't a lot of things in life that can impact every nook and cranny of your existence like baseball. That's a fact. Relationships. Upbringing. Entertainment. Amazement. Conversations. And, of course, a tidal wave of life lessons. It's all right there. That's what baseball offers. Did you forget?

I haven't.

Understand that I'm not here to suggest that my path to this point - as a major league relief pitcher who never made an All-Star team (yet) - is so special that it should be separated from the rest of the baseball-playing world. I simply have been living this life inside the sport, looking all around, and not always liking what I see.

Sure, I have a story, as does everybody else touched by the game. But I want to make sure we don't forget about how baseball has the power to shape lives, like it did with me. And, more important, that we keep this conversation going.

I'm lucky. I'm reminded of the mission every single day. Every. Single. Day. We should all be so fortunate. And we can be.

For me, it's not just the uniform, the paycheck, the opportunity to throw a baseball in front of thousands of fans, or the thrill and agony that come with actually competing at the highest level of the sport. Sure, that's all part of it. But the real important stuff that baseball has cloaked me in has come courtesy of my everyday existence. It shapes lives, brings out emotions, and, maybe above all, actually makes you think. Big-league ballplayer or not, that's what baseball can do to you.

Do you want an example? How about the power of a pout?"

For more information on A Damn Near Perfect Game on Amazon, please click here.

No Place I Would Rather Be: Roger Angell and a Life in Baseball Writing

By Joe Bonomo

Nebraska; new in paperback, $21.95; and previously released hardcover, $27.95, and eBook, $21.95

Roger Angell was one of the preeminent baseball writers, as he was a writer and editor of The New Yorker. His appeal was that he brought a fan's love, a fiction writer's eye, and an essayist's sensibility to his coverage of America's pastime, which he did until his passing in 2022.

In No Place I Would Rather Be, Joe Bonomo, a teacher in the Department of English at Northern Illinois University, tells the story of Angell's contribution to sportswriting. These include his early short stories, pieces in The New Yorker, autobiographical essays, seven books, and the common threads that run through them. His comprehensive work reflects evolving forces on and off the field, including the shifts and trends of ballplayers and executives, and connecting that to rapidly changing mores relating to the cultural turmoil of a half century of reporting. 

Angell was born in 1920, and he was an avid fan of the game growing up, and he got to see the Murderer's Row Yankees of that time, led by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, at Yankee Stadium. His sportswriting career began in 1962, with his first assignment covering the first season of the Mets at the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan.

Bonomo writes, "Covering the inaugural year of the Mets was, in retrospect, a lucky gig for Angell, so rich was the team's legendary ineptitude. At the exhibition games, when he wasn't wincing at the errors and comical outfield collisions, Angell paid attention to those sitting next to him in the creaking stands - fellow, like-minded spirits. "It occurred to me fairly early on that nobody was writing about the fans. I was a fan, and I felt more like a fan than a sportswriter. I spent a lot of time in the stands....And that was a great fan story, the first year of the Mets. They were these terrific losers that New York took to its heart.' In his spring training game notes of the time, Angell jotted, 'Kind of team this is: Players, etc. - pretty bad but not like Giants, compare, v. briefly. Surely smiling, he adds: 'But more fun.'"

Angell was the preeminent essayist of the paradox that baseball is both change and constancy. His writing will have a new relevance, as the game remakes itself with new innovations like the pitch clock, and people are searching for the context of these changes within its history. Angell's writing has a fondness for the past, a sober reckoning of the present, and above all, a hope for the game's future. 

Winning Fixes Everything: How Baseball's Brightest Minds Created Sports' Biggest Mess

By Evan Drellich

Harper; hardcover, 368 pages; $32.00

The Houston Astros won the World Series last fall, their second in franchise history, and the first one, in 2017, gained a lot of notoriety, if not shame, when a scandal erupted after they were found to have cheated during that season.

Evan Drellich, who was the Astros beat writer for the Houston Chronicle and is now a national writer for The Athletic, broke the story of how the Astros stole the opposing teams' pitching signs using a camera in center field, which was transmitted to the dugout so they could  bang on a trash can to tell their hitters what pitches were coming. 

In the new book, Winning Fixes Everything, Drellich examines how the Astros built themselves up into a contender, but it quickly became a corrupt operation. There are never-before-told details of a management culture that became broken, the once-revered leaders who enabled it, and how it all came crashing down with the scandal.

This deeply researched book, told through years of extensive interviews, is the definitive account of how baseball's most controversial franchise and how a modern baseball team truly works. 

The culture change at the Astros, led by their former General Manager Jeff Luhnow, came about as Moneyball-type thinking, with a focus on analytics, and Ivy League graduates took hold of the sport, and they set out to built a cost-efficient winning machine on the principles of the outside business world, based on squeezing every penny out of every transaction, player, and employee.

They were the model of how to build a team, as they suffered the worst seasons in franchise history, the first time the Astros ever lost 100 games, and with prized prospects like Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and George Springer, made the playoffs in 2015 and won it all in '17. Since then, they have won three more American League pennants and that second World Series title last fall, and have beaten the Yankees four times in the playoffs.

However, the whole thing is clouded by the cheating scandal, and will always be viewed as such by fans in New York and Los Angeles, if not all over. The ramifications of that scandal were felt all over baseball, as not only were the Astros' General Manager at the time, Luhnow, and Manager, A.J. Hinch fired in January 2020 right after MLB released their report, but Alex Cora, who was the Houston bench coach in 2017, was fired as Manager of the Boston Red Sox (he was brought back for the 2021 season after his one-year ban was served), and Carlos Beltran, the ringleader among the players, lost his new job as manager of the Mets, and fell short of induction on the Hall of Fame ballot this year because of his ties to the cheating scandal. However, Hinch is currently the Manager of the Detroit Tigers, and Beltran took a job in the Mets front office in late February.

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