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.

The Old Man & The Sea

I like a good novella. It’s longer than a short story, and just a wee bit lengthier than a novelette, but much shorter than a novel. I’ve never had an issue devouring an interesting 500+ page book (for example, the Harry Potter series, which I love), but I have found that, as the years advance, I sometimes appreciate a briefer journey.

 

The diminutive length (it comes in at under 100 pages) of Hemingway’s Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece The Old Man & The Sea belies its greatness. Whether one chooses to just enjoy it as a good yarn or embraces a deeper message full of symbolism and implied significance doesn’t really matter. I first read the story as a teenager in junior high school. The allegorical imagery had to be explained to me back then, and I vaguely recall not being much into all that mumbo jumbo. But I still enjoyed the tale. Decades later I understand that stuff. I get it. And it just makes for a richer, more gratifying experience.

 

Santiago is a simple man…a very poor man, atleast by societal standards. He is a fisherman in 1950’s Cuba. As we meet him Santiago has gone 84 days without catching a single fish and has lost his young apprentice Manolin because the boy’s father thinks the old man is bad luck. However, the boy shows a sincere devotion to his mentor, looking in on him, bringing him food, and helping him gather up his supplies before and after a day on the ocean. Finally Santiago makes a bold decision. On that 85th day he ventures far out to sea…way further than anyone else, and certainly beyond the point that a single elderly fellow in a small skiff with no help really should. However, his gamble seems to pay off when he snags a mammoth marlin that he estimates to be 1500+ pounds. Unfortunately the fish won’t go down without a fight and pulls Santiago in his little boat even further out into the middle of the ocean. Then it becomes a 3 day battle of wills between the patient, determined, wise fisherman and his epic catch.

 

Most folks in Santiago’s position would give up. Either the long dry spell would stop them dead in their tracks, or the unenviable task of trying to haul in such a huge fish alone would prompt an all too common “Ehhh…it’s not worth the hassle” response. The Old Man not only won’t give up, but he approaches the task with an amazing display of composure, quiet determination, and judicious skill. He simply does what must be done. He does not surrender, believing that “Man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”

 

We often talk of heroes. In our modern world we tend to put all kinds of people on a decidedly undeserved pedestal. We revere vacuous, morally corrupt celebrities, spoiled, overpaid athletes, and all of The Pretty People. But we overlook the folks who simply get up each morning, put in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, and keep life moving forward with the products they make, the services they provide, and the seemingly menial tasks they complete. Millions of people every single day execute mundane jobs to the best of their ability, and unlike Santiago’s favorite baseball player Joe DiMaggio, there aren’t masses of people watching and cheering them on. But they do it anyway. Maybe that’s true heroism. Perseverance is indeed a vastly underappreciated quality.

 

I suppose the sea is like life itself…deep, immense, beautiful, occasionally scary, and with a whole host of surprises…both good & bad…lurking below the surface. Like Santiago we all need to venture out a little further than usual sometimes, and it helps if we are equipped with the proper tools, have amassed a good amount of knowledge & wisdom, and have the ability to ply our trade with deft skill. Sometimes we are rewarded with an impressive catch, and other times evil with reach up and bite us like the sharks Santiago encounters on his journey homeward. Either way we must face the struggle with dignity, courage, patience, optimism, and intelligence.

 

I was never much into fishing. My Dad would take me every once in a while when I was a kid, but truth be told I preferred to be home watching TV or reading a book. I guess I just don’t have the patient temperament necessary. If I had to make a living fishing I would probably starve, and I definitely wouldn’t be able to deal with an 84 day slump or endure a three day contest against a fish seven times my size, and that’s not even taking into consideration the sharks. I don’t even like to watch the scarier parts of Jaws for God’s sake. But I think it’s pretty obvious that Hemingway meant The Old Man & The Sea to be about a lot more than fishing, and in that he succeeded. And it doesn’t hurt that it’s a splendidly entertaining story too.