In last year’s round-up of baseball books, I said I’d be happy if the Cubs won 85 games, and the season ended up being quite a bit more successful than that with the most exciting season we’ve seen for a while and a legitimate playoff run. Although the Cubs won’t sneak up on anybody this year, it will take more than 85 Ws to win my satisfaction in 2016. This time, I’ll be happy with a National League championship and a trip to the World Series. Anything less will be a disappointment. (I can’t believe I just wrote that.)
With spring training still a few weeks away, those who miss baseball might enjoy reading a baseball book or two. Here are some thoughts on the baseball books I read in 2015. I hope you find something here that gets you through. (You can also search “baseball” on this blog to find recommendations from the past several years.)
One Shot at Forever: A Small Town, an Unlikely Coach, and a Magical Baseball Season by Chris Ballard
Certain things just didn’t happen in small Ilinois towns in the early 1970s. Hippie English teachers didn’t coach baseball for one thing. The team scorekeepers were always boys, and small schools like Macon High could not expect to compete with big-city and suburban powerhouses like Lane Tech and Waukegan.
But as one of the players on the 1971 Macon Ironmen said, “There’s no rule against it.” So they played the game their way. Practice was optional. The players decided among themselves who would play which position. The coach kept the play in “play ball.” And the farm boys just kept winning.
One Shot at Forever is Chris Ballard’s terrific story of the 1971 Macon High Ironmen and their improbable state championship run. Wrapped around their journey are the Vietnam War, small-town pride, and petty jealousies that sometimes play out among the grown-ups in a high school. I have vivid memories of each of those, and Ballard gets them absolutely right.
I hope it’s not a spoiler to say this book ends differently than I expected, but I should have known to expect the unexpected where the Ironmen are concerned. Thanks to Lauren D. for recommending One Shot at Forever, now one of my favorite baseball books.
The Grind: Inside Baseball’s Endless Season by Barry Svrluga
Those involved in major league baseball call it “The Grind,” the day-to-day existence in the longest season in professional sports. “A baseball season, stretching from the tail of one winter to the cusp of the next, erodes the bodies and minds of the men who play. How they handle those demands can determine their performance, there for the world to see nearly every single day,” writes Barry Svrluga in The Grind: Inside Baseball’s Endless Season. Svrluga provides insights into The Grind from the perspective of numerous individuals associated with the Washington Nationals, including star players, a relief pitcher, wives, executives, scouts, and other personnel.
Although The Grind may sound like it would be a litany of complaints, it is really more objective than that as the various people tell how they go about their lives in the flow of a long baseball season, a lifestyle different from any other. The most interesting part for me was how details of life on the road are painstakingly handled by clubhouse manager Rob MacDonald who does everything he can to keep things running smoothly so that players can concentrate on baseball. Although the book strays from its theme in places, The Grind is well worth any baseball fan’s time.
Curveballs & Changeups: Bleeding Blue and Seeing Red by K.P. Kmitta
Scott Banks is a lifelong Cubs fan from a family of lifelong Cubs fans. That means, of course, that the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry is in his blood. When Banks finds himself relocated to Cardinal territory and married to a Cardinals fan, he’s a little queasy. Then he wins a contest that puts him on the field at Busch Stadium. Saying more here would ruin the fun, and K. P. Kmitta’s Curveballs and Changeups is a lot of fun.
Kmitta clearly loves the Cubs, baseball, and “base ball.” The Scott Banks plot line is the main narrative, but it is blended with a historical thread about the beginning of professional base ball in St. Louis … and its debt to Chicago. This is a thoroughly enjoyable baseball book, although some scenes seem to be there for reasons other than keeping the story moving forward.
Curveballs and Changeups will be a fun read for any baseball fan, especially those who favor blue or red.
The Pitch That Killed: Carl Mays, Ray Chapman and the Pennant Race of 1920 by Mike Sowell
I’ve always known that in the early part of the last century a pitcher named Carl Mays threw a ball that struck and killed a player named Ray Chapman, the only fatality ever to occur on a major league field during a game. Intriguing as that was, I never thought much more about it other than as a bit of trivia.
Then last fall Summer Game Books brought out a new edition of Mike Sowell’s The Pitch That Killed: Carl Mays, Ray Chapman and the Pennant Race of 1920. Sowell’s writing combines the weight of a historian’s approach with a sportswriter’s flair to create an excellent reading experience that illuminates an era, its players, and an unparalleled baseball tragedy.
Sowell provides in-depth context for the Mays pitch that killed Chapman by giving us not just the life stories of those two men, but also those of their teammates, family members, opponents, and bosses. I was surprised to find that Hall of Famers Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and Joe Sewell are large figures in this story.
Maybe that’s what I liked best about this completely satisfying book: It’s a captivating story with fascinating characters, internal and external conflicts, a century-old setting vividly rendered, and a tragedy more complex than any trivia question.
The next several books are geared for younger readers but fans of all ages may find them worth a look.
Baseball Great by Tim Green
This one falls in the category of “not recommended,” although it may be just what some readers are seeking. Baseball Great came on my radar when it was announced as the required all-school summer reading selection for our district’s two middle schools.
The wheels start to come off early in Tim Green’s book when it presents a 31-year old minor league pitcher at the AAA level in the Toronto Blue Jays system. That didn’t sound right, so I checked into it. A 31-year old pitcher might be hanging around in an independent league somewhere, but no major league farm team has had a pitcher that old on a AAA roster for as far back as I could find. (The only exceptions are a few major league pitchers on short rehab assignments.)
How about this for another credibility lapse? A character gets on a team bus, sits in the back, and reads a book on a long trip. OK, fine. A couple of chapters later the same character is on a school bus and sits up front because sometimes he gets motion sickness when he rides in the back of the bus. What? He was perfectly fine in the back of the bus earlier with no mention of motion sickness!
The cover shows a young player with the letter C on his batting helmet. No team anywhere in this book has a C in its name, school, or location.
In the book’s climax the bad guy figures out something pretty remarkable about our hero and heroine, but we are never told how he put it all together.
The actual at-bats and game situations have tension and drama, but there are surprisingly few of those scenes. Most of the plot is predictable, and the characters are wooden and uninteresting. Even for the students at each school who might like baseball stories, it’s not a very good book.
Baseball Is . . . by Louise Borden
This is a fine, comprehensive tribute to America’s game. I can easily imagine young baseball fans spending hours exploring the artwork’s nuances.
The Unforgettable Season: Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and the Record-Setting Summer of 1941 by Phil Bildner
Phil Bildner captures both the excitement and the historical significance of the 1941 season that saw Joe DiMaggio set a new hitting streak record and Ted Williams pursue a .400 batting average. The text is crisp and engaging, although the artwork’s quality is inconsistent, especially in how Ted Williams face changes significantly from page to page. Young baseball fans will appreciate how Bildner provides context for how every season and every player has the potential for the drama of 1941. Until it happens though, 1941 remains a singular season.
The last two titles are picture books by Matt Tavares, author of Mudball, one of my all-time favorite baseball books. I had the chance to meet Matt Tavares in November. He’s a great guy, and I was glad he recorded this little video for my wife’s second grade class. (Tip for teachers: Authors are usually happy to record these clips, and I recommend asking whenever you meet an author students like.)
Growing Up Pedro: How the Martinez Brothers Made It from the Dominican Republic All the Way to the Major Leagues by Matt Tavares
Matt Tavares baseball books are always excellent, but to me Pedro Martinez will always be the guy who humiliated 72-year old Don Zimmer by flinging him to the ground. I’m sure Martinez has done a lot of good things in his life, but this Zimmer fan has a hard time getting past that ugly episode which goes unmentioned in this otherwise fine book.
Becoming Babe Ruth by Matt Tavares
By focusing on Babe Ruth’s earliest years, Matt Tavares is able to portray the human being behind the myth and avoid getting into Ruth’s bad behavior in his prodigious Yankee years. I admire the body of work Tavares is creating to enhance young baseball fans’ understanding of the game’s history.
Please feel free to leave comments or recommendations for other baseball books! As always, thanks for reading.