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Review: Baseball Forever

Ralph Kiner, a fixture in the Mets broadcast booth since their debut in 1962, was 00kinerday_1 honored on July 14 with a "night." A mix of baseball celebrities were on hand, including former Mets players (Bud Harrelson, Ed Kranepool, Rusty Staub, Jerry Koosman, Ed Charles, and Tom Seaver, who did a fairly shaky job in his remarks, fellow media (former teammate Bob Friend and Keith Hernandez; Marty Noble penned a nice piece on MLB.Com), and stars from Kiner’s generation (Yogi Berra and Bob Feller).

It gives me a chance to rerun a review of his most recent book Baseball Forever: Reflections of 60 Years in the Game, (written with Danny Peary. Triumph Books, 2004), that originally appeared in the Spring 2005 edition of Nine.

Ralph Kiner was smart enough to realize early on that an athletic avocation is usually short-lived and uncertain. Yet he contradicts this notion in Baseball Forever as he reminisces about his sixty-five-year association with the national pastime.

Kiner was the premier slugger of his day. Over his ten-season career, curtailed by back injuries, he led the National League in home runs seven consecutive years. Not even the mighty Babe had enjoyed such a streak. Kiner finished with 369 round-trippers and was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1975.

In many ways Kiner was ahead of his time. Considered opinion of his era (1946-55) eschewed swimming, golf, and weightlifting for players, yet Kiner employed these activities as part of his off-season regime. On a more intellectual level he became an integral part of the fledgling players’ movement, fighting for improved conditions and salaries.

Blessed with movie star looks Kiner could have been the poster boy for Nike’s old "Chicks dig the long ball" advertising campaign. When someone pointed out that he didn’t hit for much of an average (.279, a low figure for a superstar), he often quipped, "Singles hitters drive Fords; home run hitters drive Cadillacs."

After retiring as a player Kiner relearned the game from a front office perspective, serving as the general manager for the Minor League San Diego Padres before beginning his apprenticeship as a broadcaster.

Baseball Forever is not a typical autobiography. Kiner juxtaposes his own experiences with the modern game. He uses the same folksy ease in his book as he does on the air, with his chapters on such topics as the athlete-celebrity connection, the mania over home runs, and "The Future, Then and Now." His chapter on baseball’s slow progress at integration is particularly thoughtful. He is also quite candid on the subject of drugs. "People who believe that there were no drugs in baseball at all in my time are misinformed," writes Kiner. "There were. In the forties and fifties, we had Benzedrine and Dexedrine. A large percentage of players took them … because they could keep you awake and alert. I admit I took them."

Kiner was one of the New York Mets’ inaugural announcers. From 1962, when the team debuted, to 1979, he shared both television and radio chores with Bob Murphy and Lindsey Nelson–the longest-running trio of announcers in pro sports. (Murphy retired in 2003, leaving Kiner as the only link to the Mets’ first season.)

Kiner was the prototypical ex-jock, engaged to comment on the game in relationship to his own playing days. Despite the occasional flub or malapropism, he has been one of the constants in Mets fans’ lives. In spite of his membership in the media fraternity, Kiner is empathetic to those athletes who refuse interviews. In his day the press developed relations with athletes and kept their remarks almost exclusively to what happened on the field. Nowadays there is little in the way of celebrity privacy. Everything is fair game for discussion, especially those salacious bits of off-the-field "human interest."

"I think players are less forthcoming … because it’s very hard to say anything ‘off the record’ anymore," Kiner observes. "You can tell a reporter whom you trust something very personal, and he will keep to his promise not to write anything, but he’ll give the information to another reporter who will put it in his column. That’s done a lot, which is why some players decided it’s just easier not to talk to anybody."

Baseball Forever, written in collaboration with Danny Peary, whose previous baseball titles include the brand-new 1001 Reasons to Love Baseball and Cult Baseball Players: The Greats, the Flakes, the Weird and the Wonderful, serves as a reminder that the game is not just what happens today but also the memories, history, and lore of past generations. Kiner and his contemporaries muse about the current state of baseball: "When we have one of those moments when we can’t figure out how today’s game relates to the game we once played, someone will remind us, ‘The pitcher still stands 60’6" from the batter, and there are still 27 outs and no time limit.’… The game hasn’t really changed at all. It’s just different."

Review: Birdie: Confessions of a Baseball Nomad

Birdie: Confessions of a Baseball Nomad by Birdie Tebbetts and James 00birdie Morrison. (Triumph Books, 2002.)

By his own description, George "Birdie" Tebbetts was a "Joe"–that is, he wasn’t the type of player who could hit 40 home runs or bat .300 or win any awards: "Joes are the guys who win you the pennant."

Tebbetts may not have won many flags in his long career as a player, manager (his picture when he was skipper of the Cincinnati Reds graced the cover of TIME magazine in 1957), and scout, but he was a member of the small fraternity of those men who devoted their entire professional lives to the game.
A compulsive diarist, Birdie, with the help of his cousin James Morrison, wrote this autobiography a short time before he passed away in 1999.

Born in Burlington, Vermont, in 1912, Tebbetts developed into a steady, if not outstanding, catcher for the Tigers (under the tutelage of the great Mickey Cochrane). He became something of a journeyman, moving on to Boston and Cleveland before calling it quits as a player.

He considers himself lucky to call such men as Ted Williams, Fred Hutchinson, and Hank Greenberg teammates and friends. The description of his relationship with Hutchinson, who died of cancer at age forty-eight, is especially touching in a generation during which men internalized their feelings.

To make it as a "lifer," one has to be especially observant. Tebbetts shares some of these insightful and amusing observations, and not just with the standard, common-sense, by-the-numbers cliches on which writers-***-ballplayers seem to rely. Breaking away from the pat descriptions of veterans returning from World War II to reclaim their jobs to appreciative fans, Tebbetts comes right out to say that some of the replacement players "had on occasion told us they were sorry the war ended as quickly as it did. They knew as soon as it was over their ride was over."

Tebbetts was proud of his accomplishments as a catcher, handling some of the greatest pitchers and staffs of all time: Spahn, Newhouser, Grove, Feller, and Lemon. His description of the responsibilities of the backstop is almost poetic. He notes with disdain the way modern catchers try to "frame" pitches, pulling in balls out of the strike zone with the hope of getting the call. He suggests, in a Casey Stengel kind of way, that

[if it’s] a ball and it doesn’t mean that much, make a ball out of it! The umpire is going to like that. And when you really need it, you get a ball that far off, and he’s expecting you to catch it in the ball zone, but instead you pull it into the strike zone, instead of saying "Ball!" he says "Strike!" but he knows that up to that time you haven’t been framing, so he thinks it’s a strike.

In other words, have respect for the umpire and bide your time. (These sentiments are eerily restated by the Mets’ Mike Piazza in the April 15 issue of ESPN The Magazine.)

Birdie elaborates on the special relationship between catchers and umpires, noting that no other player spends as much time in proximity to the men in blue. He preaches courtesy and honesty or, as he puts it, "chivalry at home plate." He tells the story of helping out an umpire who was still suffering occasional dizzy spells from the lingering effects of a gas attack in World War I and was having a difficult time seeing pitches one day. In a display of compassion that seems unbelievable today, both Birdie and the opposing catcher conspired to help out the arbiter: if the catchers raised their right hands, the call would be a strike; if they lifted the left, it was a ball. This allowed the umpire time to gather his wits and ultimately keep his job.

Tebbetts also takes partial credit for ending the practice of having photographers roaming the field during the game. Up to that point the shutterbugs were allowed to gather close to the action. An on-field argument between Tebbetts and an umpire wound up in the paper the following day, breaking the unwritten dictum of not blabbing to the press about such things. Each man thought the other guilty of violating the code when in fact it was a nearby photographer who was responsible for the breach of etiquette. Shortly thereafter National League president Warren Giles enforced the ban.

Birdie is an especially rewarding bio, coming from a regular guy who was lucky enough to spend his life doing what he loved. When asked how he would like to be remembered when he passes away, Tebbetts responded, "I’m just a baseball guy. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to be."

The only disappointing aspect of the book is that it is too short. With the life Tebbetts led, and the entertaining, straight-shooting way he describes it, the book could have easily been twice as long and no fan would complain.

This review appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of Nine.

Golden Time

00_asap__sports_glory_dayssffstandalonepAn Associated Press story in the Washington Olympian about a new book and exhibit highlighting The Glory Days: New York City Baseball, 1947-1957, edited by John Thorn.

Note that this should not be confused with Harvey Frommer’s New York City Baseball: The Last Golden Age 1947-1957, published originally by Macmillan in 1980, and re-released by The University of Wisconsin Press in 2004.

Author and publisher have a tendency to toss around the description "the golden age" pretty liberally. Often, they can’t agree on the exact timeframe, to wit:0018630_goldenage

The Golden Age of Baseball, by Robert Cassidy, Bruce Herman, Dan Schlossberg, and Saul Wisnia (Publications International, 2003)

Baseball: The Golden Age, by Harold Seymour (Oxford University Press, 1989)

Baseball’s Last Golden Age, 1946-1960: The National Pastime in a Time of Glory and Change, by J. Ronald Oakley (McFarland, 1994)

The Golden Age of Baseball 1941-1964, by Bill Gutman (Gallery Books, 1989)00conlon_1

Baseball’s Golden Age: The Photographs of Charles M. Conlon (Harry N. Abrams, 2003) Evocative shots of players and personnel from the early-mid 20th century.

Willie’s Time: Baseball’s Golden Age, by Charles Einstein (Southern Illinois University Press, 2004) One of my favorite stories recounts how Einstein, who had ghostwritten a Mays autobiography, ran into the ballplayer one day and went unrecognized. When he tried to identify himself as the writer who had done Mays’ book, the ballplayer, not known for his intellectual pursuits, asked "What book?"

Death sells

The recent death of St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Josh Hancock brings to mind other tragic incidents of ballplayers dying before their time.
Books about such players who died during the baseball season include Ed Delehanty in the Emerald00dela Age of Baseball (see a previously posted review) and July 2, 1903: The Mysterious Death of Hall-Of-Famer Big Ed
the latter written by Mike Sowell, who might get something of a morbid reputation: he also wrote The Pitch That Killed, a biography about Ray Chapman ( d. Aug. 17, 1920), the only on-field fatality.
Yankees cather Thurman Munson was killed in a plance crash on Aug. 2, 1979. His story is told in Thurman Munson: A Baseball Biography. I was working at a
sleepaway camp in Quebec when I heard the news that fateful day. Information was hard to come by in those
pre-wired days, but as the only person from the U.S., I received a lot
of commiseration. Ironically, Munson’s autobiography, written with
Marty Appel, was released that year.00_nec
Other players have succumbed during the regular season, including Lyman Bostock (Sept. 23, 1978)
and Willard Hershberger (Aug. 3, 1940), but no books have been devoted strictly  to them. There stories, and those of  other ballplayers, have been collected in The Baseball Necrology: The Post-Baseball Lives and Deaths of over
7,600 Major League Players and Others
, published in 2003 by  McFarland.

Orlando Cepeda: Busted

According to an Associated press story, Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda "was arrested on suspicion of felony possession of a controlled substance, along with possession of a hypodermic needle or syringe and possession of marijuana…."

This makes a natural segue to the following critique I did for the MultiCultural Review:

The Orlando Cepeda Story, by Bruce Markusen. Pinata Books/Arte Publico Press. Cepeda

Cepeda, a native-born Puerto Rican, was a top notch baseball player who spent a good part of his early career in an era when African-American and dark-skinned Hispanics plied their craft under the harshest prejudice. In pre-civil rights years they were often required to sleep and eat apart from their Caucasian teammates. Other indignities were everyday occurrences.

Latin players had the additional language issue to contend with. Many had difficulty with day-to-day situations taken for granted such as ordering food in restaurants. As a result, they were often embarrassed and misused by an impatient press. Their unenlightened managers labeled them as “lazy” or “difficult.”

Cepeda overcame these difficulties to develop into a beloved teammate and leader. When his career ended he went afoul of the law, arrested and imprisoned for drug possession. That he was able to put his life back in order, return to a life in the sport he loved as a member of the San Francisco Giants’ front office and gain election into baseball’s Hall of Fame is a testimony to hard work and good fortune.

Unfortunately, Markusen tells Cepeda’s story, which advocates perseverance in the face of adversity, without the excitement or passion which should hold young readers’ attention. The absence of photos also makes this biography somewhat user-unfriendly.

Whatever happened to…STATS’ Baseball Scoreboard?

I was listening to the Mets-Rockies game as I was driving home from work last night. Orlando Hernandez was pitching for New York and Howie Rose commented on how economically he was working, getting the ball where he wanted it. A few days before Oliver Perez threw more than 25 strikes in a row. I got to thinking: what was the record for consecutive strikes?

During the Tuesday game — which the Mets eventually won in 11 innings on a drag bunt by Endy Chavez — David Wright had a lengthy, multi-pitch at bat that again made me wonder: in a situation like that — that is a full count that includes multiple foul balls — who has the advantage, the pitcher or the batter?

That made me think back to the Baseball Scoreboard, a wonderful book that 00stats_1 STATS Inc. used to publish about a decade in the 1990s. Anyone who reads USA Today or Sports Illustrated would recognize the "factoid graphics" that highlighted such items as the longest home runs, fielding accomplishments, etc. These little icons grew into bigger essays in the Scoreboard series.

The format was usually the same from year to year. One section would answer a question about each team. For example, in the 1999 edition, the Mets section asked "Where does Mike Piazza Rank Among the Best-Hitting Catchers in History?"

Another section would consider more general questions, such as "How important is it to grow your own players?" or "Who profits most from experience — pitchers or catchers?" In the ’99 edition, Bill James wondered which records were in jeopardy. In hindsight, it’s interesting to read that he gave Mark McGwire — hot off his own record-breaking season —  a 23 percent chance of reaching 800 home runs. The only others considered for such a lofty total were Ken Griffey, Jr. (35 percent), Sammy Sosa (15 percent), and Juan Gonzalez (12 percent). Barry Bonds was given a 1 percent chance of reaching 756.

On the pitchers’ side, Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux had a 60 and 37 percent chance, respectively, of reaching 300 wins. Tom Glavine, Pedro Martinez (who had a record of 84-46 at age 27, when the book came out), and John Smoltz were also given a decent chance (31, 21, 19 percent). While Glavine seems destined, Martinez has been injured of late and Smoltz has spent many years in the bullpen, making them questionable.

The Scoreboard also asked (and answered) question on offense (""Who are the human air conditioners?"), pitching ("Was Kerry Wood’s Game the Most Dominant Ever?" following his 20 K performance against the Astros in 1998), and defense ("Where do extra-base hits come from?").

The Scoreboard offered the virtual "something for everybody." The queries changed from year to year, but they were always entertaining, thought-provoking, but not obnoxiously heavy on the calculus-like statistics that have wormed their way into the numerical lexicon of the game.

There might be a lot of blogs that deal with these things nowadays, but I guess I’m just old-fashioned; I enjoyed leafing through the pages, making my notes, and sharing it with my friends at the ballgame or the office.

Percentage Baseball: An Appreciation

"Before Bill James, before Moneyball, all the way back in 1964, we published one of the touchstones of mathematical analysis of the sport: Percentage Baseball by Earnshaw Cook. As a result of a conversation about the productive value of the sacrifice bunt, Cook … began putting probabilistic values on every aspect of the game in an effort to make every decision a matter of applying cut-and-dried rules."

From the MIT Press blog, April 4, 2007

Percentage Baseball was one of the first baseball books I 00percentageremember buying as a kid. Found it at a used book store for a couple of bucks. Even though I didn’t undestand the material at the time (and still, don’t in some examples), its charts and graphs made me seem precocious just by lugging it around. I still have it in my library, it’s original bright green cover making it easily recognizeable among all the other volumes. (The book art here is the latest rendition.)

That it’s still available today is quite remarkable. It is the granddaddy of the SABR movement.

RIP, Bowie Kuhn

Kuhn_williams_nixon_top Bowie Kuhn passed away yesterday at the age of 80. For some reason, he makes me think of Richard Nixon. Probably because he held office at the same time as the President and looked so Republican.

Kuhn never seems to have received the respect he deserved. He served during some of the game’s most tumultuous years (1969-84). While he was in office, baseball went through major transitions and issues, including expansion, drug scandals, contentious owners (although every commissioner probably had to deal with his share of those, Kuhn’s with Charlie O. Finley and Ted Turner were particularly entertaining), free agency, and labor unrest.

He had to deal with the likes of Denny McClain, whom he suspended for a year, Tnhardball invoking the catch-all "in the interests of the game" (gambling, behavior towards sportswriters, etc.) and also booted the beloved WIllie Mays, who sought work at a casino once his playing days were over. Kuhn’s explanations are thoughtful, althought not always rational, depending on your perceptions of events.

Shortly after leaving office, Kuhn wrote about experiences in Hardball: The Education of a Baseball Commissioner (originally published in 1987 by Times Books). It’s a fascinating, if sometimes overly verbose, account of his work in and out of the game.

Like him or not, Kuhn was at the helm when baseball fell and was revived, transitioning the game from "old-school flannel" to "modern polyester."

ESPN’s obituary, along with a sampling of quotes about Kuhn.

A column by Jon Heyman from SI.com.

Through a Diamond: 100 Years of Japanese Baseball

by Kerry Yo Nakagawa. Rudi Publishing, 2002.Through

Since Horace Wilson, an American schoolteacher in the "land of the rising sun," introduced baseball to his students in 1872, Japanese have been mad for the game. The author, a writer, actor, filmmaker, and director of the Nisei Baseball Research Project, chronicles this fervor.

Like their European counterparts, Japanese immigrants came to America looking for a better way of life. They were also victims of racism and xenophobia, which prevented their full participation in American life. Unlike their fellow immigrants, however, Japanese émigrés did not dissuade their children from playing baseball. "Much like Negro Leagues for African-Americans and the women’s professional leagues," Nakagawa writes, "…baseball provided a vital and vibrant way… to participate in America ‘s pastime."

Nakagawa’s narrative incorporates the game on all levels, and the scores of photos portray the progress of the game and the joy it brought to the Issei (first generation American-born Japanese), Nisei, Sansei and Yonsei (second, third and fourth generations).
The author tells the stories of professional players such as Masanori Murakami, the first Japanese national to reach the majors, as well as Ryan Kurosaki and Don Wakamatsu, the first Sansei and Yonsei, respectively, to reach baseball’s highest level. He describes the men behind the scenes — the architects and ambassadors of the sport — such as Kenichi Zenimura a player, coach, captain, manager, and organizer of amateur teams, who was considered the "father of Japanese American baseball." Another pioneer was Hawaiian-born Wally Yonamine, the first Nisei to play professional ball in Japan. Although not as famous as Jackie Robinson (the first black to play in the majors), he was met with similar racial taunts and death threats.

During World War II, thousands of Japanese were displaced to internment camps, where they continued to play. After the war, the sport offered them "a way to reconnect with their communities and regions." It was also a main component of rebuilding a war-ravaged Japan itself. American armed forces, led by General MacArthur, sponsored tours by American all-star teams to boost morale, leading to a renewed interest in the game as well as a new-found alliance between the former enemy nations.

Through a Diamond was written before Ichiro Suzuki Tsuyoshi Shinjo and other native-born Japanese became such hot commodities. Their exploits might call for a new edition in the near future.

This review appeared in the January/February 2202 issue of ForeWord Magazine.

Purchase Through a Diamond: 100 Years of Japanese American Baseball on Amazon.com.