December 7, 2019

I See Great Things in Baseball – Part 2

Photo by Jose Morales on Unsplash

Editor’s Note: We are delighted to continue publication of  a three-part essay on the literature of baseball written by Old Lyme resident Tom Gotowka. This is the second part, find the first one at this link, and look for the third in the coming weeks.

As I noted in my first essay, baseball fans have been blessed with a remarkably rich – and often thoughtful – literature describing the sport. In this second essay, I’ll review several baseball novels and biographies that provided me with a better understanding of the sport.

This is not an exhaustive study of the genre. Rather, they’re the written works that were meaningful to me and helped me endure the winter months.

The Glory of Their Times: The Story of the Early Days of Baseball Told by the Men Who Played It”, by Lawrence Ritter, is a collection of player memories told by the players themselves. This oral history is a positive account of what was then a very different style of play. It is suitable for little leaguers.

In” The Boys of Summer”, Roger Kahn, a Brooklyn native, and journalist for the New York HeraldTribune, follows the careers of players on the Brooklyn Dodgers team that won the 1955 World Series, beating the New York Yankees. It was the Dodgers’ first and only World Series championship won while located at Ebbetts Field in Brooklyn. That team is often cited as one of the most exciting Major League ball clubs ever fielded; it is the team that broke the color barrier with Jackie Robinson.

Kahn tracks the lives of the key players on that team, including Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Carl Furillo, Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella, and Duke Snider (and others) when their glory days were behind them. Kahn writes with sincerity and really demonstrates exactly what it means to be a passionate fan.

In “Don’t Look Back: Satchel Paige in the Shadows of Baseball”, Mark Ribowsky chronicles the life and times of Satchel Paige, the first Negro League star to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Ribowsky covers both Paige, the player, and the environment in which he played.

He describes life for such gifted players before the major league color barrier was broken. Paige, who was a contemporary of both Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb, pitched in the “parallel” Negro Leagues for over 20 years before he joined the Cleveland Indians at age 42 for their 1948 pennant-winning season (where he went a very respectable six wins and one loss). He had played to huge crowds in Pittsburgh, and Newark in the Negro Leagues and pitched about – so it is thought – 1,000 games. Paige, like the later Yogi Berra, was known for his colorful remarks and expressions.

In “Ball Four”, Jim Bouton describes the then hidden side of Major League Baseball: the rampant drug use among players and the routine use of amphetamines. He reveals the pervasive drinking and drunken behavior of some players, including Mickey Mantle. Highly controversial at the time of publication, the book is largely now considered an important and true perspective of the game as observed during Bouton’s own playing days in the 1960s and early 1970s. Bouton’s book was written before the steroids’ disaster and the advent of asterisks in player record books.

In “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game”, Michael Lewis describes the then unusual analytic method used by the Oakland Athletics in assembling a competitive, but low cost (i.e., by Major League standards) team. Lewis focuses on the Athletics’ General Manager’s “analytical, evidence-based, “sabermetric” approach to player selection. Note that, like “gonfalon bubble” first used by Franklin Pierce Adams, Lewis was also able to introduce new jargon to the game.

Canadian author, W. P. Kinsella, wrote several baseball novels and short stories. I read two of his novels after seeing the movie, “Field of Dreams”, which was adapted from his novel “Shoeless Joe”.

In “Shoeless Joe”, an Iowa corn farmer (Ray) hears a voice in his cornfield saying “If you build it, he will come”. So, Ray then proceeds to start a multi-year project to build a baseball park in his front yard. However, important peripheral tasks appear with each phase of the completed construction.

I’m not going to do a play-by- play on this work, but one of the tasks leads Ray to meet J.D. Salinger, the author of “Catcher in the Rye”, who then joined him for a baseball game at Fenway Park. The eight baseball players, who were banned from playing in the Majors for their role in the Black Sox Scandal, also make appearances on Ray’s field. Kinsella mixes fantasy, and mysticism with historical facts to demonstrate the importance of baseball in America’s collective memory.

In the second novel, “The Iowa Baseball Confederacy”, Kinsella tells the tale of Gideon Clarke, whose goal is to prove to the world — as his father tried to do before him — that the world-champion Chicago Cubs traveled to Onamata, Iowa in the summer of 1908 for an exhibition game against all-stars from the Iowa Baseball Confederacy, an amateur league. The game turned into an epic battle of over 2,000 innings, played mostly in the pouring rain.

This game is not in the record books; and nobody remembers it or the Confederacy. However; Gideon Clarke “knows” it happened, and he is determined to set the record straight. His life is dominated by his desire to prove the existence of the Iowa Baseball Confederacy, and to show the world that a team from this league played against the Chicago Cubs in 1908.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a shred of evidence that the Confederacy ever existed. Like “Shoeless Joe” above, baseball is at the heart of Kinsella’s novel, and he again uses myth and mysticism to show his love of the game.

Mike Lupica is a sports journalist and former newspaper columnist for the New York Daily News. He is known for his provocative commentary. A prolific sports novelist, he frequently targets young adult readers. He handles the issues of immigration and refugees seeking a better life in two recent novels.

Heat”, covers the life of 12-year-old Miguel (Michael) Arroyo, and his 17 year- old brother, Carlos; who live in the South Bronx near Yankee stadium. The young Cuban immigrants love baseball. Again, I’m not going to do a play-by-play on this story, but Michael is, at 12-years-old, an outstanding Little League pitcher. His fast ball has been “clocked” at eight miles per hour, and opposing coaches say that ‘he is too good to be just 12-years-old’. The brothers begin to worry when adults start asking to speak to their father about a birth certificate.

It’s not Michael’s age that’s the problem. Rather, they can’t let authorities know that their father had died of a heart attack several months earlier, leaving them orphans. They fear that foster care will separate them unless they can keep their secret until the birth certificate issue comes to some sort of resolution. With the help of an elderly neighbor, Mrs. Cora, and Carlos’ two jobs, they’ve convinced everybody that Papi is in Florida caring for his sick brother.

This story is reminiscent of the Danny Almonte age-fraud scandal in which a 14-year-old star pitcher for a Bronx Little League team passed himself off as a 12-year-old in order to be eligible to play in the 2001 Little League World Series.

Danny was born in the Dominican Republic, but achieved some notoriety on the basis of his Little League World Series performance. He pitched a no-hitter in the Mid-Atlantic Regional finals, the game that took his team to the World Series; and although his team did not go on to win the Series, he became known nationally. Several teams had actually hired private investigators to look into the ages of the entire team.

Strike Zone” is Lupica’s recently published follow-up to “Heat” and again covers the lives of a young baseball prodigy and his immigrant family living in America. Twelve-year-old star Little League pitcher Nick Garcia has some dreams. He dreams he’ll win this season’s MVP and the chance to throw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium. He dreams they’ll find a cure for Lupus so his sister won’t have to suffer. But mostly, he dreams that one day his family can stop living in fear of the government.

The story progresses until Nick notices a mysterious man lurking on his street corner, and senses a threat …

Clearly, Lupica is reflecting on a period when most Americans still supported the notion : “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.”

This wraps up my own list of key baseball literature. A third essay will discuss baseball at the movies.

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