Sometimes I surprise myself by the predilections that I develop seemingly out of the mist. I have always fancied myself somewhat of a renaissance man who is interested in a wide range of subjects, which I generally consider a positive though I have noticed over the years that truly successful people seem to have tunnel vision and a laser focus on their vocation of choice. At any rate, this “variety is the spice of life” attitude spreads to the bookshelves in The Bachelor Palace as well, where one can find biographies of Founding Fathers alongside the Harry Potter series, books about agricultural science & history on the same shelf as Hemingway, and Shakespeare sharing space with The Hunger Games.
At any rate I have…somewhat to my bewilderment…amassed quite a collection of baseball biographies. This is surprising to me because my feelings about baseball have been tepid at best for quite awhile, although as simple as it sounds and as trivial as it may seem to some I think the success thus far of the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates has me on the verge of falling in deep like with our national pastime once again. However, I also think it wise to look a bit deeper because you see my bookshelves are not filled with recent biographies about contemporary players like Derek Jeter, Mike Piazza, John Smoltz, or RA Dickey. Cheating scandals & rampant drug use still cause me to be a bit jaded about the modern game of baseball. Instead what you’ll find lining the walls of The Bachelor Palace are tomes about hallowed names of yesteryear…Ruth, Aaron, Mays, Mantle, Maris, Musial.
If I could hope in the ol’ DeLorean and go back in time I think one of the places I might like to visit would be the world of baseball during its golden age. I’d like to catch some games at places like Ebbets Field or The Polo Grounds, see teams like The Gashouse Gang & The Whiz Kids, and watch Hall of Famers like Dizzy Dean, Pie Traynor, & Pee Wee Reese. Why?? That’s an excellent question that I may address more in depth at some other time. For now it will suffice to say that our collective bromance with this bygone era and the quintessential American game that helped define it seems eternal and that’s okay with me.
Which is all a longwinded precursor to me endorsing three excellent baseball biographies that I have read in years past and that are likely to be enjoyed by any baseball fan. There will be sequels on this particular topic, but I think it best to just whet your appetite right now with a few recommendations:
Unfortunately one of the most beloved Pittsburgh Pirates of all time died in a tragic plane crash on New Year’s Eve 1972 when I was just 2 months old. However, growing up as a Pirates fan and living just a couple of hours from Pittsburgh means that I have heard a lot about Roberto Clemente my entire life. The Pirates organization has done an excellent job of keeping his memory alive over the past 40 years and recognizing what a truly special talent he was. However, one need not be a Pirates fan to enjoy this first-rate biography about Clemente written by David Maraniss, whose biography about Green Bay Packers football coach Vince Lombardi called When Pride Still Mattered is still one of the best books of any genre I have ever read. That combined with my admiration for what I’d always heard about Clemente were what prompted me to purchase this book about 5 years ago. This is a well written & engrossing story that is reverent & respectful yet honest about its subject. Clemente was somewhat neurotic & sensitive and felt the weight of being a black latino superstar. He was often treated shabbily by the press but could give as good as he got. In other words Clemente was a flawed human being just like the rest of us. That being said, his nobility & kindness shines through as well. And the author doesn’t shortchange the baseball aspect of things. I sometimes feel as though Roberto Clemente is overlooked in discussions about the greats of the game, with only long time Pirates fans willing to reserve for him his proper place among the baseball immortals. The fact is that not only should Clemente rank right up there with the best that ever played game, but he could have been even better if not for various physical ailments that plagued him throughout life. This is a book that should be read not only by anyone who calls themselves a Pittsburgh Pirates fan, but also by everyone who loves the game of baseball.
When I was in college I had the opportunity to take a class about sports movies. Yes that really is a thing…and it was awesome. We watched Knute Rocke: All American (with future President Ronald Reagan as The Gipper), The Natural, and Rocky…among others. But I think my favorite may have been Pride of the Yankees starring Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig. Most people know two things about Gehrig. They know that he was baseball’s “Iron Man”, having played in 2130 consecutive games between 1925 & 1939 (a record that stood for 56 years until Cal Ripken Jr. broke it in 1995), and they know that he died at age 37 from the debilitating muscle disease that now bears his name. But there is so much more to Gehrig and this book tells the story well. Many who have seen Pride of the Yankees may attribute the perception we have of Gehrig as a soft spoken, humble, down-to-earth guy to Gary Cooper’s wide-eyed, aw shucks, boy-next-door portrayal, but what the reader of Luckiest Man begins to understand is that Cooper’s portrayal was an extremely accurate representation of who Gehrig truly was. That’s not to say that Gehrig was perfect. He was a timid momma’s boy that didn’t mesh all that well with outgoing & gregarious teammate Babe Ruth and was caught in the middle of a lifelong tug-of-war between his mother and his wife that many more…forceful…men might have put the kibosh on pretty quick. But hey…we all have our issues, right?? The best endorsement I can give this book is that I am a lifelong hater of everything NY Yankees and because of the movie and this book I actually respect Lou Gehrig. You will too.
Joe DiMaggio : The Hero’s Life
Another Yankee?? Hmmm…maybe it’s just the modern day Yankees that I hate. If I had been around 60 years ago I might actually be a Yankee fan. Anyway, I remember when this biography came out about 13 years ago it was pretty controversial. Joltin’ Joe had always been a national treasure…a hero to Italian Americans, the apple of every girl’s eye, and the envy of every red-blooded male because of his graceful athletic skill and later his marriage to goddess Marilyn Monroe. Even in retirement he became the folksy pitchman for Mr. Coffee in the 1970’s & 80’s. But author Richard Ben Cramer lays waste to the DiMaggio mythos and exposes our hero as being yet another very flawed individual (I’m sensing a theme). The DiMaggio we read about here is an often petty, usually vain, sometimes bitter, frequently materialistic, largely unhappy man with an overinflated ego and a suspicious nature that had a negative impact on most of his personal relationships. The Hero’s Life is a stark reminder that just because someone can run fast, hit hard, or handle a ball with deft skill doesn’t mean they are a nice person. I suppose with guys like Barry Bonds, Lance Armstrong, Kobe Bryant, & Alex Rodriguez around we are all well aware of that fact, but it is interesting to realize that such phonies have been around for many many decades and fascinating to compare & contrast how technology doesn’t allow such individuals to hide their hypocrisy too well these days, whereas in DiMaggio’s time he & a complicit media were quite successful in creating a graceful, classy, refined image. Some may think Cramer’s book to be harsh or even malicious, but I generally found it to be insightful & fair. It is most definitely a page turner and a must read for every baseball fan.
- It Happened in Pittsburgh: Biography Facts about Roberto Clemente (local.answers.com)
- The Early Life of Baseball Legend Roberto Clemente (local.answers.com)