Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Books: On The History Of Baseball As The World Series Is Set To Begin

Photo by Jason Schott.

The World Series will be starting on Friday night with the Texas Rangers hosting the Arizona Diamondbacks. The arrival of the Fall Classic is always a fun time to read books about the history of baseball, and these four titles will make you appreciate the game even more: The Book of Joe: Trying Not to Suck at Baseball & Life, by Joe Maddon and Tom Verducci; The Grandest Stage: A History of the World Series, by Tyler Kepner; The Legend of The Mick: Stories Reflections on Mickey Mantle, by Jonathan Weeks; and Sons Of Baseball: Growing Up with a Major League Dad, by Mark Braff.

The Book of Joe: Trying Not to Suck at Baseball and Life

By Joe Maddon and Tom Verducci

Twelve; paperback, 384 pages; $19.99; available today, Tuesday, October 24th

Joe Maddon is a three-time Manager of the Year, known most for leading the Chicago Cubs to a World Series championship in 2016, ending their 108-year curse. He also led the Tampa Bay Rays to an American League pennant in 2008, which set them on a path to being one of the most consistent teams in baseball ever since.

While he has been very successful, Maddon also is known for being one of the most colorful characters in baseball. He is part strategist, part philosopher, part sports psychologist, and part motivational coach

In The Book of Joe, which Maddon co-authors with Fox Sports' Tom Verducci, he gives readers his unique take on the hot topics of baseball, starting with the tension between traditional methods and analytics. He also talks about managing the modern player, including the dynamic duo of Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout in his latest job, the Los Angeles Angels, as well as why the honeymoon with the Chicago Cubs didn't last, and how the role of managers is changing as front offices gain power.

Maddon sees it all through his trademark glasses and irrepressible wit. His path began in the "shot and beer" town of Hazelton, PA, and forged by 15 years in the minor leagues before beginning his Major League coaching career with the Angels in 1994. He is built on old-school values and new-school methods, with wisdom that applies beyond the dugout.

A reporter's dream, Maddon is known to opine on anything and everything around the game and in life. His thoughts epitomized by an endless stream of quotes such as "Try not to suck," which became a mantra in his time in Chicago, "Do simple better," and "Don't ever permit the pressure to exceed the pleasure."

This excerpt examines more of the complexity of the skipper: "Joe Maddon never played major league baseball. He logged twenty years in the minors as a player, manager, and instructor before getting a major league job. Despite his late start - or, as he tells it, because of it - he joined Joe McCarthy and Jim Leyland, the only other managers with no major leauge playing experience to manage nineteen seasons and win a World Series. More indelibly, he established himself as one of the great turnaround experts of the modern game. He took over a Tampa Bay team that had never had a winning season and a Chicago team with five straight losing seasons, and within three years at each stop guided them to the World Series. His 2016 Cubs ended the longest championship drought in North American sports.

Maddon gained renown as much for this out-of-the-box methods as for his success. In his first pennant race with the Cubs, for instance, he turned Wrigley Field into a petting zoo for his players, replete with a snow leopard, penguin, armadillo, and flamingo. The flamingo held special resonance for him. 

'The flamingo knows balance,' Maddon says, 'as evidenced by his ability to stand on one leg for prolonged periods of time. Balance is what we seek, especially the balance between data and art.'

Like Maddon, what you are reading defied convention. It is not a memoir. It is not an insider's account of how managing has changed. It is not a disclosure on leadership. It is not insights into what makes a winning culture and how to manage people, from rookies to superstars. It is not a collection of life lessons form someone who rode in minor league buses for two decades and in the biggest championship parade in American history.

It is all of that. And more. Maddonism by Maddonism, it is a personal guidebook for finding balance as baseball and the world around us are increasingly shaped by data. As with his peripatetic journey, the paths are many, but the starting place is one. Think well."

The Grandest Stage: A History of the World Series

By Tyler Kepner

Anchor; paperback; $18.00

Tyler Kepner is a baseball writer for The Athletic after a long run as the national baseball writer for the New York Times, for whom he has covered every World Series game of the past two decades. He joined the newspaper in 2000, covering the Mets for two years before moving to the Yankees beat for eight seasons before focusing on the national baseball scene. He is also the author of K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches (click here for our coverage from 2019). 

Kepner started his career as a teenager, interviewing players for a homemade magazine in the early 1990s. He attended Vanderbilt University on the Grantland Rice/Fred Russell sportswriting scholarship, then covered the Angels for the Riverside (Calif.) Press-Enterprise and the Seattle Mariners for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer before joining the Times.

In Kepner's new book, The Grandest State: A History of the World Series, now available in paperback he delivers a unique look at the Fall Classic's 117 years, with the story told in seven chapters, which mirrors the most games that can be played in the series.

Kepner writes it in the same conversational style as K, and it is filled with essential tales that go back to the first World Series in 1903, with insights from Hall of Famers such as Reggie Jackson, Mike Schmidt, Jim Palmer, Dennis Eckersley, and many others who have both thrived and failed on the game's biggest stage. 

Many burning questions that baseball fans have are answered, starting with, why do some players, like Derek Jeter, David Ortiz, Madison Bumgarner crave the pressure? How do players handle a dream that comes up short? What's it like to manage in the World Series, and what are the secrets of building a champion? 

Uncelebrated heroes like Bill Wambsganss, who pulled off an unassisted triple play in 1920, are celebrated, and Kepner also probes the mysteries behind magic moments like Babe Ruth's called shot in 1932 and Kirk Gibson's home run in 1988, and he also busts some long-time myths, such as that the 1919 Cincinnati Reds were much better than the Chicago White Sox, who came to be derided as the Black Sox, as eight players were accused of throwing the series and received a lifetime ban.

Kepner, in his chat with Brooklyn Digest when the book was originally released last fall, said of how the World Series can really make a guy's career, "This is where legacies are made. I mean, you can be a great player and not go to the postseason, you know, like Mike Trout has only gone once, Ernie Banks and guys like (Ken) Griffey (Jr.) never made the World Series. This is where you really leave your mark and I think Harper recognizes that and is taking advantage of that opportunity and is just letting himself be himself and we're seeing some amazing, amazing performances from him and a bunch of those guys, but he's the one who's kind of legacy is on the line and he's making the most of it. It's always fun to watch greatness like that." Please click here to read our full interview with Tyler.

The Legend of The Mick: Stories and Reflections on Mickey Mantle

By Jonathan Weeks

Globe Pequot/Lyons Press; 224 pages; paperback, $22.95; eBook, $20.50

Jonathan Weeks is a lifelong sports fan who has published several non-fiction books on the topic of baseball, including Mudville Madness: Fabulous Feats, Belligerent Behavior, and Erratic Episodes on the Diamond, and Baseball's Dynasties and the Players Who Built Them. He also has written two novels, including one a posthumous collaboration with his father, Don, Scarecrow on the Marsh.

In the entertaining book, The Legend of The Mick, Weeks looks at how Mantle was made for the moment he made his debut for the New York Yankees in 1951. Mantle came up as a right fielder, but the following season, he was set to inherit one of the best positions in sports, center field, from the face of the Yankees, Joe DiMaggio.

As it turned out, he would also inherit Joe D's star power just as the country was entering the television age. Mantle's boyish good looks, breathtaking power as a switch hitter, and blazing speed on the basepaths made him a superstar in the heart of the Yankees' greatest period.

Mantle was a seven-time World Series champion, a three American League Most Valuable Player Awards, came in second three times; won the Triple Crown in 1956, and was a 16-time All-Star. Part One of the book covers all his achievements in chronological order.

In Part Two, Weeks writes about the stories behind the moments, such as on his mammoth shots, which led to the phrase "Tape Measure Home Runs." One of the more fascinating anecdotes is that Mantle co-wrote a book with Robert Creamer called The Quality of Courage, Which was inspired by then-Senator John F. Kennedy's 1956 book, Profiles in Courage. Mantle's book was released in 1963, and in it, he recounted stories about the people he admired most for their courage on and off the field.

"Mantle's career on the diamond was a contrast between what actually happened and what might have been," Weeks writes. "Hampered by an endless string of injuries, he missed hundreds of games during his 18 seasons in the majors. His unnaturally high strikeout and walk totals prompted him to famously joke that he 'played seven years without ever hitting the ball.' In spite of the pain, and the surgeries, and the missed opportunities, he assembled an impressive batch of statistics. To the present day, he still holds the all-time record for home runs by a switch-hitter.

"Mantle was among the most revered and decorated players in baseball history, capturing seven World Series rings and three MVP awards. Not only was he the face of the Yankees, but he was the face of the game itself - rakishly handsome and perpetually smiling. Tom Molito, a marketing executive and author who developed a friendship with Mantle during his later years, colorfully remarked, 'Mickey Mantle was the All-American Boy. He was Babe Ruth, Jack Armstrong, and Red Grange wrapped up in one. His platinum blonde hair complemented his natural muscular build and boyish good looks. All that was missing was the cape with the big 'S.'...

In spite of the many setbacks he encountered on and off the field, Mantle acknowledged his own good fortune. He escaped a life of drudgery in the Oklahoma mining trade by forging a successful career in baseball. 'I could have ended up in a hole in the ground, and I ended up being Mickey Mantle,' he once said. 'There must be a god somewhere.'"

Sons Of Baseball: Growing Up with a Major League Dad

By Mark Braff

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers; 240 pages; hardback, $24.95; eBook, $23.50

Mark Braff began his career as a reporter for the Ridgewood Newspapers in New Jersey before he joined Madison Square Garden Sports Network as the first member of its in-house public relations team. He also worked for USA Network, part of an has over 40-year career as a highly regarded public relations professional.

In the heartwarming book Sons of Baseball, Braff offers a rare glimpse of professional baseball players, not as pitchers, hitters, or managers, but as Dads and Granddads. He interviews 18 men who share their exclusive stories, ballpark memories, and the challenges and rewards of having fathers who had the talent to reach the pinnacle of the game of baseball. 

Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. wrote the foreword and there are interviews with the sons of beloved players, such as Yogi Berra, Mariano Rivera, Roger Maris, Gil Hodges, and Ron Guidry. Each chapter is devoted to one son telling their story, from the poignancy of one son disclosing that his father has not been able to acknowledge his son's sexuality as a gay man, while there are humorous tales, such as one son absconding with the groundskeeper's cart in Cleveland.

These kids grew up amidst the distinct sounds and aromas of baseball, from the locker rooms to the dugouts, the cinderblock-lined corridors beneath the stands, and the fields that were the playgrounds of their youth.

Braff writes of the bonds of baseball through generations this excerpt: "One of my fondest boyhood memories is that of tossing a baseball back and forth with my father. In my neck of the woods, New Jersey, this called 'having a catch.' In some other environs, it's called 'playing catch,' which I must admit makes a lot more sense since you wouldn't, for example, call singing a duet 'having a duet.'

Regardless of verbiage, it has occurred to me over the years that the act of a father and son tossing a baseball back and forth often embeds itself in the memories of both parties, but particularly the son's, because it was a time when you had your dad all to yourself.

For me, it meant being out on the street in front of our house (a pretty quiet street, thankfully) on a warm summer night and throwing around and old baseball with my dad. He reminded me a bit of late-career Mickey Mantle because, like The Mick, it looked like every throw by my dad was adding a bit more wear and tear to an already aching shoulder. But he kept right on throwing.

Over the years, I have come to appreciate baseball's role as a connective tissue between fathers and sons; daughters, too, of course, but for purposes of this book, I am just considering the father-son connection. 

I think the first time I ever thought about this was when I was watching a sitcom many years ago and one of the younger characters mentioned that, no matter how large the generation gap with his father, the one thing they could always talk about was baseball. Years later, Field of Dreams, one of the most popular baseball-centric films ever made, captured the essence of the baseball bond when Kevin Costner's character, Ray Kinsella, is briefly reunited with his deceased father, John (played by Dwier Brown), and asks him, for one last time, 'Hey, Dad, wanna have a catch?'

I refer to Field of Dreams as a 'baseball-centric' film because it really wasn't about baseball. It was about a father and his son, and how they were reunited through baseball; specifically, the act of playing catch.

As I thought about baseball as a father-son bonding experience in recent years, I began to wonder what it must have been like when the dad is a major league baseball player. Is he happy to toss the ball around the yard with his son, or is asking your dad to have a catch the equivalent of an accountant's son asking his pop to add columns of numbers just for fun?

What's it like to be without your dad around the house for long stretches of time during the summer, the very same time when you're off from school and have all the time in the world to toss around a baseball? 

How does it feel to be out with your dad only to find that you must share him with an autograph-seeking public?

And what about playing Little League? The self-esteem of so many young boys is tied to how good they are at sports. So, what happens when all the other kids and their parents know that you are the son of a major leaguer, and maybe you start hearing their voices, hushed perhaps but loud enough for you to hear, that you'll never be a professional baseball player like your dad?"

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