A Few Book Recommendations for Baseball Fans

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.

 

bballAt 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:

 

Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero

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 rcMaraniss, 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.

 

Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig

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 gehrigawesome. 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

dimaggio08_1_41Another 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 joe-dimaggiotechnology 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.

A Final Word About Sarah Palin and David Letterman

I am making an educated assumption that most everyone has atleast heard about and may have followed to some degree the public battle between late night TV kingpin David Letterman and former Vice Presidential candidate and current Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin. In a nutshell, he made some jokes at her expense that were of questionable taste and she called him out on it. Then the drive-by media started chiming in and the whole thing got completely out of control. Letterman kind of apologized and the masses seem eager to move on to the next meaningless controversy. However, to paraphrase John Belushi’s Animal House alter ego Bluto Blutarski…..”Over?? It’s not over til I say it’s over!!”.

 

I need to preface my opinions by first of all sharing my feelings about the parties involved.

 

Governor Palin was a shining light in an otherwise mundane election last year. As a conservative I was excited to have her on the ticket, and was outraged at the public dismantling of her character. Was…is…she ready for prime time?? Maybe…maybe not. But she isn’t any more unproven than the embarrassment that was ultimately elected. He was just a bit more smooth and polished. And he had other things going for him. I’ll let you interpret that any way you wish. Anyway, I look forward to Governor Palin’s future. If she plays her cards right I sincerely believe she has a legitimate opportunity to become the first female President of the United States in 2016 (I don’t think the current President will flop bad enough, atleast in the view of the mindless adherents to liberalism that elected him in the first place, to lose in 2012).

 

I’m a night owl and a fan of late night television and therefore a Letterman fan. I don’t put him on quite the pedestal that some others do…..I don’t think he’s that much better than Leno or Conan or Jimmy Kimmel or Craig Ferguson or Jimmy Fallon. The Top 10 is obviously his calling card, but more than that it’s his goofy and irreverent style. Dave used to do things like drop objects off the top of buildings, crush stuff with a streamroller, and elevator races. My favorite Dave bit was when he drove around Los Angeles in a convertible filled with 1000 tacos. He has incorporated many “real” people into his show…..people like stage manager Biff Henderson, Mujibur and Sirajul (who owned a little shop next door to the Late Show theater), Larry “Bud” Melman (aka Calvert DeForrest), Meg Parsons (the girl who worked across the street at Simon & Schuster), and of course Dave’s Mom Dorothy.  But something inside Letterman seemed to change after his heart surgery in 2000 and then the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks. He has become increasingly political, and his bitterness and cynicism is often palpable. He’s still fun, but he’s not the same guy he was 10 years ago.

 

As far as the current situation, what happened is that Letterman quipped about Sarah Palin’s “slutty flight attendant look”, and worse, told a joke involving Palin’s daughter being “knocked up” by Alex Rodriguez during a Yankee game. This has caused a firestorm that has raged several days longer than I ever thought possible. Predictably the drive-by liberal media has leaped to Dave’s defense, while those who are unhappy with our coarsening culture and “anything goes” society have grabbed onto the issue like a dog with a bone. Palin, who had slipped back into relative irrelevancy after the 2008 election, is either truly angered by the comments made about her and her family, or is seizing an opportunity for some face time. What one believes probably depends on what hole you punched last November. Letterman is trying to play the “I’m just a dumb guy who tells jokes” card, but no one is really buying his naivete. He’s nothing if not shrewd.

 

So is it much ado about nothing or is it a perfect example of why our nation is heading to Hell in a handbasket?? I’m honestly not trying to hedge my bets, but I tend to believe it’s a little of both. Letterman obviously leans left and would never have told a similar joke about a Democrat (if so he’d have been hung out to dry by the drive-by media). But I’m quite certain he never, in his wildest dreams, thought those jokes would cause such a commotion. He has done and said things just as tasteless without a ripple of reaction. I tend to believe that Governor Palin’s indignation is genuine. However, I do think she needs to be cautious. She wants to make a run for The White House someday, and taking this issue too far may have long term negative repercussions.

 

The bottom line is this…..what offends you may not offend me, and vice versa. Do I think our society has sunk into a moral abyss?? Yes, I do. There are many reasons for this, chief among them the dogged determination by some to eliminate God from everything coupled with a lethargic malaise by Christians who have far too long lain down and let it happen. But I also believe that we walk a very thin line. We must choose our battles wisely. Getting ourselves into a self-righteous lather over every single thing tends to cause a backlash. I am reminded of the classic children’s fable The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Complaining and protesting too much elicits a dismissive reaction from the opposition, and more importantly sways those who are sitting on the fence to the other side.

 

Was what David Letterman said wrong?? Yes. I do think that part of the debate that has been overlooked is the fact that his joke more than likely was meant to refer to Palin’s 18 year old daughter Bristol, who famously did become pregnant out-of-wedlock just as her mother was coming into the spotlight, but that the daughter who was actually with the Palins at that Yankee game was 14 year old  Willow. It was a huge mistake by Letterman and his writers. Of course the jokes were in bad taste either way, but the clarification of which daughter was the target has a lot to do with the strong reaction. The acceptance by most of this type of borderline vulgarity is a topic we could spend hours debating. What society deems as okay in 2009, whether it be on television or any other facet of life, is far different than it used to be. Some of the things one sees or hears on TV or in movies or just at the office are shocking in comparison to what we deemed suitable just a decade or two ago. That’s a problem that is, unfortunately, too big for me to tackle all by my lonesome. What I (and each of you as well) can do though is live life in as Godly and Christ-like a fashion as possible. It’s surely easier said than done, but that’s no excuse not to make the effort. We can’t solve all the world’s problems on our own, but we can attempt as best we can to be shining examples of The Creator who made us in His image, the Savior who paid the price for our sins, and the Holy Spirit that should dwell within us.

 

As for Letterman and Palin, life goes on. He will continue to have a successful show that people will watch and be entertained by (including me), and Governor Palin will move forward with her political career and I for one will be interested to see where it goes. It’s time to put all this in the past.

 

 

 

 

America’s Pastime??

Barry Bonds in action.

Barry Bonds

I had every intention of doing a full blown 2009 baseball preview. That obviously didn’t happen. Opening Day has come and gone and so it seems a rather pointless exercise.

I remember not that long ago when Opening Day was an event. Everyone, even the most fair weather baseball fans, knew when it was approaching. I suppose it’s still a big deal for a significant amount of baseball aficionados, but it certainly doesn’t seem to have the cachet that it once did. I didn’t even realize it was occurring until I heard it mentioned on the radio in my car about an hour before the first pitch was to be tossed. There didn’t seem to be much coverage of spring training this year, or maybe I just wasn’t paying attention.

There are probably a lot of reasons for the decline in popularity of baseball, atleast in relative terms when compared with our ever-increasing love affair with football. For me personally I’m a Pittsburgh Pirates fan, and they haven’t been anywhere close to competitive for about 17 years. We Pirates fans have no real reason for hope or anticipation and usually quit paying close attention before summer even officially begins. I’m sure this apathy spreads to fans of other teams like the Kansas City Royals, Washington Nationals, and Cleveland Indians, whose teams are rarely that good. This can be traced to the lack of a salary cap, something football has and baseball sorely needs. There are also the constant scandals that have rocked the sport for the last couple of decades. I don’t believe it’s out of bounds to hypothesize that the beginning of the end for baseball started with the downfall of Pete Rose about 20 years ago. Then in 1994 there was a players’ strike that cut the season in half and forced the cancellation of the playoffs and World Series. Baseball has never fully recovered from that season and the wrath it instilled in loyal fans. It came very very close to a much desired reconciliation with its public in 1998 due to the excitement involving Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s chase of Roger Maris’ vaunted home run record. But during the past 4 or 5 years even that progress has been unraveled as we’ve learned that all those home runs were likely a mirage, the numbers skewed by illegal substance abuse. One by one mighty heroes of the diamond have fallen from grace, from Barry Bonds to Jose Canseco to McGwire to Alex Rodriguez. Even pitchers, chief among them the legendary Roger Clemens, apparently aren’t above cheating.

We also cannot ignore the changing landscape of our nation. We prefer fast and frenetic these days, as opposed to slow and easy. Football appeals to our more modern, chaotic sensibilities, while baseball seems nostalgic and bucolic. Baseball is a relic, a living monument to a bygone era we recall with a certain sense of wistful wonder. It’s a nice place to visit occasionally, but it’s not something we can really sink our teeth into for the long haul. And with its 162 game season plus playoffs and then a World Series baseball definitely encompasses a long haul. Transversely, football season seems much shorter, even though it really isn’t. Close examination reveals that baseball opens in April and concludes in October…..7 months. Football, if one takes into consideration both college and the NFL season which basically overlap, begins in late August and climaxes in early February…..7 months. Of course there is a significant difference when one factors in that each team in football plays once per week, while in baseball your favorite team likely plays 4 or 5 times. Youngsters today consider baseball slow and boring. They have so many other choices…..video games, the internet, DVDs, Ipods. Our culture is on sensory overload, and baseball easily gets lost in the shuffle.

Football has better PR as well. Does anyone think football players don’t use performance enhancing drugs? If you do, you’re more than naïve. But no one seems to make nearly as big a deal out of it. Also, when was the last time you watched or attended a college baseball game? College baseball has an extremely limited following, while college football is HUGE. We are able to follow our beloved football players every step of the way from their recruitment to the university of their choice, through their entire college career, to speculating who’ll choose them in the NFL Draft (does anyone actually watch the MLB Draft? Ummm…no), through their (hopefully) long NFL career. We’re invested in football every step of the way. Baseball…..not so much.

This examination is not meant as an insult to baseball. I’m still a fan. I just find it unfortunate that circumstances have converged in such a way that prevents me, and legions of others, from being a passionate fan. Calling baseball America’s Pastime is nothing more than a marketing tool. It is more a reflection of America’s past.