By Father Gabe Costa
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“(Baseball) breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.” – Dr. A. Bartlett Giamatti
There is a legend about Rogers Hornsby, arguably the greatest right-handed hitter ever. It has been said that “The Rajah” would sit in a chair at home after the baseball season ended. He would pass the time by just looking out of a window, while impatiently waiting for the fall and winter to pass so he could get to Spring Training.
Which brings us to the present. The World Series is over and there is no more baseball, at least as far as the major leagues are concerned.
So I thought I would make a suggestion. I’m going to list some of my favorite baseball books and authors from over the years. There is no particular order in this more-or-less random listing. So here goes, and perhaps it will make the offseason a bit more bearable until pitchers and catchers report in February.
Ball Four by Jim Bouton. In some sense, this was the first of the “tell-all” sports books. Written in diary form over 40 years ago, it caused quite a controversy. Somewhat irreverent, the author’s love for the game nevertheless shines through. It is one of those books which lovers of the national pastime have read more than once because of its humor, style and revelation that ballplayers are not too different from everyone else.
The Hidden Game of Baseball by John Thorn and Pete Palmer. This classic sabermetrics book was co-authored by a well-known baseball historian and equally famed statistician. In this text, the authors provide a historical tour of basic quantitative measures, many of which are still in vogue. They then go on to introduce a measure known as linear weights. Following this, they use strong arguments supporting their position that this metric reveals much with respect to the assessment of players, both past and present. The book reads very well, but would probably appeal more to a numbers person.
Baseball’s Ultimate Power and The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs by Bill Jenkinson. This author needs no introduction. A baseball historian for nearly four decades, Jenkinson has scrupulously researched the topics of power hitting and long-distance home runs. While no stone is left unturned with regard to his analyses, he always invites the reader to draw his/her conclusions based on his research. At the same time, he encourages the reader to provide evidence which would contradict his results. His writing style is always thorough but never heavy or pedantic.
The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract by Bill James. The author is the one who coined the word “sabermetrics” and defined it as “the search for objective knowledge about baseball.” The book is divided in various parts and has several ranking systems. His writing style is always fresh and never boring. It was James, more than anyone else, who was responsible for popularizing sabermetrics by self-publishing issues of Baseball Abstract as far back as the 1970s. And since James joined the Boston Red Sox’s front office, the Sox have won three World Series titles. James has a lot to say … and a lot to write.
Baseball Reader by Charles Einstein (editor). This anthology goes back over a half-century. Some of the authors featured are Roger Angell, Jimmy Breslin, Ring Lardner, Grantland Rice, Philip Roth, Mark Twain and John Updike. That’s a pretty good All-Star lineup.
My Luke and I by Eleanor Gehrig and Joseph Durso. An honest, personal look at the relationship between Lou Gehrig and his beloved wife, Eleanor. She referred to him as “Luke” because to everyone else he was “Lou.” Fast moving and well-written, the authors address some of the nuances which were present in the relationships between Gehrig and his mother, and between Gehrig and Babe Ruth. The book was also turned into a TV movie, with Edward Herrmann and Blythe Danner starring in the key roles.
The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood by Jane Leavy. I know this caused quite a stir and two of my best friend from childhood — both Mickey Mantle fanatics — have refused to read this book. Whatever the controversies involving Mantle, especially during the end of his life, he was one of the all-time greats, probably the greatest player I ever saw during his prime. Leavy, who did not write this book in standard biographical/chronological form, provides a fairly complete picture of a complex Mantle. There are many fine photographs and a number of appendices providing not only statistics, but also some highly-technical analysis of Mantle’s switch-hitting. The final portrait of Mantle which emerges from the book is that he could be very graceful, generous and humble (better than we might think). And he could also be rude, boorish and embarrassingly bad (worse than we might fear). In other words, he was human.
Baseball Dynasties by Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein. This book rates and assesses great clubs. The authors develop a metric called the Standard Deviation Score, which is rooted in elementary statistics and is quite easy to compute. Their writing is witty and there are many sidebars on the pages to complement the main stream of development. Like Ball Four and other great baseball books, this one can be opened up to any page and the baseball fan will be immediately immersed in the reading.
The Ted Williams’ Hit List by Ted Williams and Jim Prime. How can you not pay attention when Ted Williams writes about hitting? The book, written in 1996, lists Williams’ choices for the 25 greatest hitters ever, using OPS. He calls it the “bottom line in hitting“ and uses it as a guiding metric in his assessment. The reader can almost envision Williams talking as he/she reads his words: They are direct, opinionated and salty. Typical Teddy Ballgame.
There are many more books I could have suggested, but hopefully the spring will be here before we know it.
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