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  1. OSJ

    Best Baseball Books

    Well since I can't watch any current baseball (which pisses me off greatly as I figured this would be the season where Acuna would hit 65 HRs or something equally ridiculous and lead my beloved Braves to the WS. Well since that ain't happening I've dug out the boxes which contain my baseball books and have diligently started reading here and there and it occured to me that I don't think we've ever discussed baseball books with the attention that they merit, so here goes a little content for y'all. Here are five of my favorites and the reasons why, whatta ya got and most importantly WHY? You'll note that with only one exception I'm not real big on autobiographies, let's face it unless you were playing in a controversial time where overt racism was the order of the day (Aaron, Frank Robinson, Willie Mays, etc.) baseball bios have an incredibly boring sameness to them unless the subject is remembered for a lot of the wrong reasons as well as a lot of the right ones, (Cobb, Hornsby, Dick Allen, Ted Williams, etc.) Other than that they tend to fall into two groups (1.) Boring day to day stories that we've heard a million times. (2.) Sloppy attempts to sell you on the player's brand of religion. For a glaring example, Dale Murphy was not only a credit to his teams but a more pleasant member of his species simply does not exist. However, I don't need 180 pages of a 200 page book extolling the virtues of a faith that revolves around finding gold plates in the woods and having regular conversations with angels. I'm sorry Dale, I wanted to read about one of the best players of his generation, not a book-length commercial for a religion that not to put too fine a point on it, but is even sillier than most faiths. So anyway, my initial list includes only one biography and you'll see why I included it. (I thought long and hard about both I Had a Hammer (Hank Aaron) and My Turn at Bat (Ted Williams), but ultimately decided that as good as they are, they would go in my second or third grouping. So anyway, here are my top five (in no particular order). My War with Baseball - Rogers Hornsby: I'm the sort of person who is interested in lots of different things so I'm always a bit fascinated by the mentality of folks who focus with a laser -like precision on doing one particular thing better than anyone else. Ted Williams said on more than one occasion that what he wanted more than anything else was when leaving a room having people point and say "There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived!" Rogers Hornsby was the same type of individual, his defensive play was just adequate and he didn't care about improving, Hornsby cared about two things only, playing the ponies and hitting a baseball. He doesn't really divulge how successful he was at the racetrack, but a glance at his hitting statistics initially seems like there may be a typo, I mean no one averages .400 for several years in a row! Yeah, Hornsby did that while being so blunt and outspoken that his teammates hated him even though he led them to the WS. Hornsby's book isn't quite as ferocious as I was expecting (when he started managing teams like the Seattle Rainiers in the PCL he had apparently mellowed considerably and a recurring description was "a nice old guy who spent a lot of time coaching players on their hitting.") This is a far cry from the guy who was so hated that his teammates didn't want to give him his cut of the WS money that he'd led them to. Hornsby's book was written about twenty years too late. It's a fascinating study of a guy who pursued the art of hitting a baseball with an intensity seen only by a couple or three other guys; but I would rather have read a Hornsby autobiography from the years where he would openly deride teammates and opponents alike with a blunt viciousness that got him in more than a few fights in the dugout. Still, as a character study of the super-obsessive type with few if any attempts to apologize for his out and out rudeness, it does make for a fascinating read. The Politics of Glory (How the Hall of Fame Really Works) - Bill James: Anyone who has read my posts over the years knows that I'm a Bill James guy for the most part. We agree to disagree on the subject of Win Shares or any other formula that indicates Phil Rizzuto is a bonafide HOFr. Anyway, in terms of hindsight Bill does a splendid job of forecasting (at the time) future HOF players. He did get blindsided by a couple of guys like Jim Thome (who seemingly came out of nowhere to bang out 600 HRs) , and he rightfully forgives the roid boys, so we see Bonds, Clemens, and Raffy (among others) being inducted as they should be. There aren't any players he projects as HOFrs that I violently disagree with unless it be Scooter, who I actually think was inferior to Vern Stephens, Marty Marion, PeeWee Reese, and Luis Aparicio. There we have a group of more or less contemporaries with Scooter being fifth in a field of five. Bill dinks around with various formulas until he builds an argument that "proves" Scooter belongs in the HOF; the thing is that Bill gives you the ammo you need with other mathematical extrapolations to "prove" exactly the opposite conclusion. A much older friend who actually saw all of the above guys play cites Reese and Stephens as the bonafide HOFrs with the other three really good but not HOF level. Anyway, if you're a stat-geek like I am who enjoys sitting around arguing statistics this book will give you all the ammo that you need for such activities. The Ballplayers - Mike Shatzkin & Jim Charlton: Okay, this thing only goes up to 1990, so it is badly in need of an update. Matter of fact, this book should have a supplement issued every ten years like many encyclopedias. And that's exactly what this thing is, my copy is in the bedroom and I don't feel like going to fetch it so I'll just go from memory. What this thing is first and foremost an encyclopedia of baseball players from MLB to Japan to the Negro Leagues. First off, it makes no attempt to cover everybody, that would be a silly waste of time. Nor does it focus exclusively on HOF-caliber players, best as I can figure the book was assembled much like the WON HOF, two guys sat down on several occasions and listed players that they found interesting or that had made a significant impact on the game. I was particularly pleased to see coverage of some of the top Japanese players who are often overlooked in volumes like this. As I said, my only complaint is that this thing should have an update every ten years. As it is, it's still a beautiful thing, think the photography of Charles Conlon or Upper Deck merged with the bios from Baseballreference.com The book is much, much heavily geared to providing biographical information as opposed to statistical data. Really, you keep this on the desk when you're puttering around on Baseball Reference and between the two, you're going to have pretty much all the info that you need on a given player. Baseball as I Have Known it - Fred Lieb: Okay, in all fairness when I see a book of reminiscences by a guy that's eighty-something I usually run in the other direction as these sorts of things tend to be inaccurate at best and out and out lies at worst (see also: The Glory of Their Times or anything involving Tommy Heinrich opening his mouth.) However, I knew of Fred Lieb as a sports writer who I had never read, but seemed to be held in very high regard by his colleagues and I was downtown on my way to catch a bus to Bellevue and I needed something to read so I thought "Why the fuck not? It's only a buck-fifty, if I don't like it I'll just leave it on the bus... Well what a wonderful surprise, despite being eighty-something Fred Lieb retained a reporter's talent for memorizing dates, places, and activities with a remarkable accuracy. Now this is a guy that was around as a reporter in the 1930s, a time when the beat reporters hung out with the players in a much more informal manner than what you see today. Fred was apparently a very likable guy and was befriended by a number of players including Lou Gehrig! Yeah, Fred was a close enough friend of the family that he was usually the fourth for a game of bridge with Loy, his wife and mother rounding out the foursome. Yeah, the dude played bridge and was a regular guest at the Gehrig house!!! How fucking cool is that? While not as close a relationship Lieb knew Cobb, Ruth, Hornsby and later Dimaggio, Mantle, Mays, etc. What's really remarkable about the book is Lieb's smooth prose presentation. He writes like a man covering the major story in the sports page (which in fact he did on a pretty regular basis), there is absolutely none of the fat or rambling that often ruins books like this (compare it to Five O'Clock Lightning for an example). Anyway, this is the sort of book that you can just open to any page and wind up learning something interesting. The Works of Thomas Boswell: This was a tough one, I almost put Bill James' Historical Abstract here, but I figured someone else would wind up covering it. I'll admit to cheating a little by citing Boswell's entire body of work as opposed to a specific title. If I really have to narrow it down, I'll go with Why Time Begins on Opening Day or The Heart of the Order. Boswell has been writing for the Washington Post for what seems like eons (though he's really only ten years older than I am), and the reason that I put him so high on the list is that he doesn't write like a reporter and really never has, he is a polished prose stylist who could write on any subject and make it seem interesting. As I mentioned, he's in the heart of the area of teams that I really don't care for. That he's a fine enough writer to make me care about the Mets, Yankees, Orioles, or Nationals is a remarkable achievement as I really, really dislike most eastern teams (might as well ad the Phillies and Red Sox to the list). Anyway, Boswell is what we call a "writer's writer", one of those rare talents who can write on any subject and make it seem compelling. That he chooses to write about sports, (primarily baseball) is just icing on the cake. Like I said about the Lieb book, you can open it to any page and learn something, with Boswell you can open any of his books to any page and the rhythm of the prose will just suck you in, no matter what the specific article is dealing with. Boswell's not just a great sports writer, he's a great WRITER. Okay, now whatcha got?
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