We’ve almost made it through the winter, and for Cubs fans this is looking like a better year than we’ve had for a while. Some are prognosticating greatness for this year’s North Siders, but I’ll be satisfied with 85 wins and whatever comes with it. As we keep an eye on spring training, here is my annual round-up of good baseball books to get you through to opening day.
Whole Lot of Bar-B-Q and Other Baseball Stories by Mike Shannon: Thank goodness for Summer Game Books, a publisher of high quality, interesting, new and classic baseball books. Thank goodness too for A Whole Lot of Bar-B-Q and other Baseball Stories by prolific baseball writer and editor Mike Shannon, published this spring by Summer Game Books.
Mike Shannon’s excellent collection appropriately leads off with a story that begins in childhood, and just as appropriately ends with a story about the death of a major leaguer and the legacy he leaves behind for his family. In between are a rich helping of baseball stories dealing with the many ways that the game powerfully intersects with off-the-field situations.
Several of Shannon’s stories involve baseball books and journalism. Others relate to how baseball’s history is preserved and conveyed to later generations of fans. “Dead Roses,” for example, includes a character who tries to curate a display of Pete Rose memorabilia but is shaken by the recurring appearance of a ghostly vision of Pete Rose as a child.
Of course, baseball’s history also includes segregation and outright racism. Mike Shannon uses that era as the backdrop for two stories, including my favorite in this collection “The Day Satchel Paige and the Pittsburgh Crawfords Came to Hertford, N. C.” When Paige’s barnstorming team meets the town bigots who refuse to serve them before their game against the local team, the Crawfords’ revenge is sweet, perfect, and hilarious.
Although the stories are not specifically related to each other, they do seem to have a thoughtful order. The last half of the book features players trying to adjust to life after the end of their careers as major leaguers. One character must live with making a World Series-ending error. Another considers becoming a team owner.
I highly recommend Mike Shannon’s A Whole Lot of Bar-B-Q and other Baseball Stories to help you get through a long season, if that’s what you’re dealing with, or as a complement to a great year for those of you with a winning team.
Slouching Toward Fargo: A Two-Year Saga of Sinners and St. Paul Saints at the Bottom of the Bush Leagues with Bill Murray, Darryl Strawberry, Dakota Sadie and Me by Neal Karlen: If you followed the St. Paul Saints of the Northern League in 1996 and 1997, you probably remember that your team included several memorable characters. The team leader was a convicted felon with Hall of Fame credentials. His name was Darryl Strawberry. One of the other outfielders under consideration in spring training had no legs.
The pitching ace was Jack Morris, a former major league all-star trying to launch a comeback whose personal charm was akin to a rabid Rottweiler. Another pitcher was a converted outfielder who threw a no-hitter in his first start on the mound. Of course, you remember Ila Borders, the first female to play in an all-male professional baseball league. The closer was so handsome that he could use the world’s worst pick-up lines in country bars around the Midwest and leave within minutes with the most beautiful girl in the place.
The St. Paul Saints were also surrounded by quirky individuals off the field. One of the team’s owners was Mike Veeck. The worst promotion in major league history, Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park in Chicago, was Mike’s brainchild, although his father, 20th century baseball imagineer Bill Veeck, took responsibility for the fiasco. The St. Paul Saints ownership also included arguably the finest comedic actor of our time, Bill Murray, who liked to show up at game time, sometimes selling beer in the stands or coaching first base or tossing out the first pitch by throwing it high over the press box and out of the stadium. The third base coach was Wayne Terwilliger, one of only three men to spend fifty years in uniform.
In the stands you could get a massage during the game. The masseuse was a nun. And one of the radio announcers during the 1997 season was blind.
I don’t know when I’ve had as much fun reading a baseball book as I did with Neal Karlen’s Slouching Toward Fargo, a wildly entertaining account of two seasons with the St. Paul Saints, a very successful independent league team. The Saints motto—Fun Is Good—definitely carries over to Slouching Toward Fargo.
Why did I enjoy it so much? The characters are so fascinating that you could probably make a pretty good book out of any one of them. But they were all in St. Paul at the same time, and Neal Karlen had access to them.
Because my favorite major league team—the Chicago Cubs—were woeful, again, last year, I paid attention to the Frontier League, another independent league. It’s a competitive circuit with its own quirks (seven-inning games for double-headers, one team that plays all of its games on the road, etc.). Everything I like about independent leagues is on full display in Slouching Toward Fargo.
A bonus for me was two of my favorite former Cubs—Hector Villanueva and Dwight Smith—make cameos appearances as they played for the Saints during these seasons. (Villanueva was tagged with the honor of having the biggest butt in the Northern League.)
But Slouching Toward Fargo isn’t just about fun. The players are trying to live their dreams, although those dreams have various shapes. Mike Veeck is trying to regain major league credibility after the disco demolition debacle from years earlier. Bill Murray is search for a place where he can find peace. Author Neal Karlen frames the book as a Rolling Stone assignment originally designed to be a hatchet piece on Murray that evolves into something more meaningful in his life as a writer.
I don’t know how I missed Slouching Toward Fargo when it was originally published in 1999, but I’m glad that Summer Game Books has brought it back in a new edition with a fresh foreword by Mike Veeck.
Slouching Toward Fargo is the book you need when you start to miss what you liked about baseball in the first place.
Veeck–As in Wreck: The Autobiography of Bill Veeck by Bill Veeck: Bill Veeck was one of baseball’s great characters from the last generation. As a baseball executive, he never lost his put-the-fans-first perspective. His autobiography provides many entertaining insights into the art of trades, building teams, and conducting business in the pre-Moneyball era.
Mudball by Matt Tavares: This excellent Matt Tavares baseball picture book tells the story of Minneapolis Miller Andy Oyler, the shortest guy in the league, and the day he hit the shortest home run in baseball history. A rainy field might be most players’ nightmare, but with the help of some timely mud, Andy Oyler has his best game ever. Although the story’s accuracy is hard to verify, Matt Tavares renders that meaningless as Andy Oyler’s mudball game crosses into mythology: a compelling tale with a resonating moral lesson. While the entire plot of Mudball takes place in one at-bat, the book’s narrative is enhanced by detailed, dramatic, captivating drawings. (I would love to have a print of the art on the two-page spread holding the publication info and the title page. Yes, Mudball had me hooked from the publication data page.) This is an excellent choice for a read-aloud, and for all baseball fans.
We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson: Kadir Nelson gives us a compelling look at the Negro leagues through the dramatic art that is his trademark, and text that gives voice to Negro League greats, as well as those who are almost forgotten. This is an important book to share with young fans.
Nobody’s Perfect: Two Men, One Call, and a Game for Baseball History by Armando Galarraga, Jim Joyce, and Daniel Paisner: After retiring twenty-six batters in a row, Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga is one pitch away from achieving a perfect game, one of the rarest feats in all of professional sports. Then Indians shortstop Jason Donald smacks a 1-1 pitch toward the right side of the infield and takes off full bore to first base. Galarraga runs over to cover first base, and the throw from first baseman Miguel Cabrera is on the mark just ahead of Donald’s foot. Perfect game.
And then veteran umpire Jim Joyce raises his arms and calls “Safe!”
Immediately after the game Joyce watched the replay and knew right away he not only made a mistake, but he also robbed Armando Galarraga of his place in baseball history. Sure, it’s just a game, but sometimes the game reveals important things about humans, and what happened next was extraordinary.
Jim Joyce admitted his mistake in front of reporters and apologized face to face to Armando Galarraga. Joyce invited Commissioner Bud Selig to fine or suspend him. He accepted full responsibility for his mistake and invited the consequences of his error. And Galarraga did something extraordinary too. He immediately forgave Jim Joyce and then went home to walk his dog and take his wife out for midnight cheeseburgers at Sonic.
I clearly remember the media coverage of this incident and how impressed I was by the grace displayed by both men. There is no shortage of stories of professional athletes behaving despicably, but this story featured two professionals behaving, not quite heroically maybe, but certainly admirably.
In Nobody’s Perfect, Daniel Paisner strains a bit to make a book out of one split-second botched call, but I enjoyed reading about Galarraga’s path to professional baseball from his middle-class upbringing in Caracas, Venezuela and Joyce’s journey to professional umpiring. Paisner expertly captures the voices of Galarraga and Joyce, presenting them in alternating chapters leading up to the moment that forever links them in baseball history.