Reviews: A clutch of baseball books for the All-Star break
Astroball: The New Way to Win It All, by Ben Reiter. (Crown, 253 pages, $27.)
It’s a tossup as to who had the most guts: the editors of Sports Illustrated for running a June 30, 2014, cover story proclaiming the Houston Astros as “Your 2017 World Series Champs,” or Ben Reiter for writing the story. Reiter’s long shot paid off: “The Houston Astros were one of the worst teams in baseball history, and decided to become one of the best. This is how they did it.”
The Astros’ rise began with statistical analysis by former NASA engineer and former St. Louis Cardinals analyst Sig Mejdal, who left space for baseball after studying Bill James, “the godfather of sabermetrics — the statistical analysis of baseball data.” He joined the Astros in 2012.
The organization was radically restructured from the minor league farm system on up, a revolution based on new statistics: “A metric that sought to incorporate the reports of the club’s scouts with his own performance-based algorithm, to integrate quantitative and qualitative evaluations. He called it STOUT — half stats, half scouts.” In plain English, it meant ditching traditional baseball stats such as batting average and RBI for on-base average, slugging average and other numbers that correlated with winning.
But the Astros’ success wasn’t based entirely on crunching numbers: There would, in baseball, “always be a place for human intelligence alongside the artificial kind. … There would always be a role for gut feels.”
“Astroball” is the baseball book of the year, essential for baseball executives at every level, accessible and fun for fans.
The Baseball Fanbook: Everything You Need to Become a Hardball Know-It-All, by Gary Gramling. (Sports Illustrated for Kids/Liberty Street, 192 pages, $19.99.)
This is the perfect book for getting a kid interested in baseball, with chapters on baseball records such as the single-season hits record (Ichiro Suzuki, 262), most career strikeouts (Nolan Ryan, 5,714) and most career RBI (Hank Aaron, 2,297). You’ll learn such fun facts as who is the only player to finish third in the Boston mayoral race, how to score a game and even how to chew sunflower seeds. (Don’t stuff your mouth: “It’s not a meal.”)
Where are the best seats to snag a souvenir ball at the game? Parents and kids can compare the greats from then and now (for example, Mike Trout and Mickey Mantle). With photos and fun facts in every page, “The Baseball Fanbook” is great flip-page reading for the bathroom, long car trips and rain delays.
Biz Mackey, a Giant Behind the Plate: The Story of the Negro League Star and Hall of Fame Catcher, by Rich Westcott. (Temple University Press, 180 pages, $27.50.)
With all of the rich history that baseball has mined, it doesn’t seem possible that there could still be greats who aren’t familiar names. But distinguished baseball writer Rich Westcott has chosen a most worthy subject — a little known (though he was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006) catcher named James Raleigh “Biz” Mackey, who played in and around the Negro Leagues for nearly 30 years (lifetime batting average .335) and managed for several more.
Mackey’s career is a virtual cutaway view of Negro League history. No less an authority than Ty Cobb called Biz “one of the most intense competitors the national pastime has ever known.” With “Biz Mackey,” Westcott rescues a legend from obscurity.
The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper, and the Making of a Classic, by Richard Sandomir. (Hachette Books, 293 pages, $15.99.)
You know the speech even if you never saw the movie. On July 4, 1939, the Yankees’ Lou Gehrig, age 39 and dying of the disease that would be named after him, told a packed house at Yankee Stadium, “I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.” Gehrig may not have needed Hollywood to make that moment immortal, but with help from producer Samuel Goldwyn (who knew nothing about baseball) and Gary Cooper, the 1942 biopic “The Pride of the Yankees” made Gehrig’s life and courage an indelible part of American folklore. Richard Sandomir, a longtime reporter for the New York Times, has unearthed a treasure trove of facts, tales and anecdotes.
Gehrig’s wife, Eleanor, was a fierce protector of her husband’s legend, “the curator of Lou’s career — an adoring, sharp-tongued, candid overseer of his memory.” Without the force of her will and personality, the film would never have been made.
Much research has been unable to reveal whether Gary Cooper learned to bat and throw lefthanded or if his baseball scenes were reversed to make it look that way. In any event, Goldwyn ordered director Sam Wood “to minimize baseball and focus on Gehrig the man.”
As nighttime dim-outs were imposed during World War II, the premiere of “The Pride of the Yankees” was the last to feature skyline spotlights until the end of the war. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to call Sandomir’s book as much of a classic as the movie that inspired it.
A Season in the Sun: The Rise of Mickey Mantle, by Randy Roberts Johnny Smith. (Basic Books, 276 pages, $28.)
Mickey Mantle is the eternal kid of baseball. The 1950s were his decade, and 1956 — when he won the Triple Crown, MVP Award and a World Series ring — was his season to shine.
But Mantle’s early years were hellish. He was born into a family of Oklahoma copper miners whose men died young from a combination of miner’s diseases such as TB and Hodgkin’s, which killed his father at age 40. Believing he would die young, as well, Mickey took to drinking at an early age. Problems stemming from a childhood attack of osteomyelitis kept him out of military service; he was tortured by fans, especially in New York, who booed him as a draft dodger.
There were endless comparisons with other Yankee legends: “He lacked Babe Ruth’s charisma, Lou Gehrig’s fierce resolve, and DiMaggio’s impeccable style. Nothing Mickey did satisfied Yankee fans.”
Then came 1956, when Mantle had one of the greatest seasons, and suddenly he blossomed into America’s hero. Al Kaline, a Hall of Fame player in his own right, was taunted by a Detroit fan who yelled, “You’re not half as good as Mickey Mantle.”
“Son,” Kaline replied, “nobody is half as good as Mickey Mantle.”
Alcoholism, injury, a busted marriage and the death of a son plagued his later years, but “Mickey would never forget the joy of 1956. He was the toast of New York … winner of the last Subway Series of the era, when the city was still baseball’s epicenter. That season crowds cheered his name in every stadium in the American League … The name Mickey Mantle evoked power and poetry, arousing the kind of admiration reserved for baseball immortals.”
Roberts and Smith, who also wrote a superb book on Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, “Blood Brothers,” have captured a great moment in time and preserved it in amber.
Allen Barra is a writer in Pennsylvania.