Two weeks ago, fresh off school and with plenty of time to waste, I ventured off to the local book repository to borrow two baseball books, Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball and The Real 100 Best Baseball Players Of All Time...and Why!. While I was there, I ran into someone from my past who was studying for an exam. When he asked me whether I was there to do the same, I abruptly changed the subject for fear of him realizing that while everyone else was studying, I was out borrowing baseball books. But anyway, I digress...
Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball, written by the immensely intelligent George F. Will, explores four key elements of baseball through the experiences of four prominent figures in the game. The book is divided into four sections: The Manager, featuring then Oakland Athletics manager Tony La Russa; The Pitcher, featuring then Los Angeles Dodgers ace Orel Hershiser; The Batter, featuring future Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn; and The Defense, featuring shortstop Cal Ripken Jr.
Although it's become somewhat dated (it was, after all, written more than 15 years ago), it has enough timelessness to appeal to contemporary readers of varying baseball intelligence quotients. It foremost is intended for those who are unfamiliar with the finer points of the game of baseball. Will meticulously details most of what there is to know about the four elements he discusses. A lot of the analysis is dated in the sense that Will goes on extensively about the vital importance of stolen bases and fielding percentage, both of which are now considered to be only marginally important by many analysts. For me, the highlights of the book were the countless baseball stories that I unfortunately had never come across before. Baseball's history is so rich and diverse that many interesting characters, whose antics are passed down through stories that most people can't help but find entertaining, have emerged throughout the years. I'll recount one of my favourite stories from the book:
The following is a story told by Whitey Herzog about the great Satchel Paige during Whitey's tenure with the Miami Marlins:
The Marlins once had a distance-throwing contest before a night game. [Don] Landrum and had the best arms of any outfielders. We were out by the center-field fence, throwing two-hoppers to the plate. Ol' Satch came out, didn't even warm up, and kind of flipped the ball sidearm. It went 400 feet on a dead line and hit the plate. I wouldn't believe it if I hadn't seen it.
We were on the road in Rochester one night, screwing around in the outfield. They had a hole in the outfield fence just barely big enough for a baseball to go through, and the deal was that any player who hit a ball through there on the fly would win $10,000. I started trying to throw the ball through the hole, just to see if I could. I bet I tried 150 to 200 times, but I couldn't do it, so I went back to the dugout.
When Satch got to the park, I said, "Satch, I bet you can't throw the ball through that hole out there."
He looked out at it and said, "Wild Child, do the ball fit in the hole?"
"Yeah, Satch," I said. "But not by much. I'll bet you a fifth of Old Forester that you can't throw it through there."
"Wild Child," he said. "I'll see you tomorrow night."
So the next night Satch showed up for batting practice - first time in his life he'd ever been that early. I took a few baseballs, went out to the outfield, and stepped off about 60 feet 6 inches, the distance from the mound to home. Satch ambled out, took the ball, brought it up to his eye like he was aiming it, and let fire.
I couldn't believe it. The ball hit the hole, rattled around, and dropped back out. He'd come that close, but I figured it was his best shot.
Satch took another ball and drilled the hole dead center. The ball went right through, and I haven't seen it since.
"Thank you, Wild Child," Satch said, and went back into the clubhouse.
Those kind of stories always appear to be more myth than reality. However, doubting Satchel Paige is not a wise undertaking, so let's assume there is, at worst, only some mild exaggeration on the part of Herzog. And while we're on the topic of Paige, let's revisit his famous rules of living, which he recommended for all humans above the age of six:
1. Avoid fried meats which anger up the blood.
2. If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.
3. Keep the juices flowing by jangling gently as you move.
4. Go very lightly on the vices, such as carrying on in society -- the social rumble ain't restful.
5. Avoid running at all times.
6. Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you.
The second book, The Real 100 Best Baseball Players Of All Time...And Why!, is a guilty pleasure. For one reason or another, I can't get enough of these all-time lists and this one is no exception. It starts out well enough - Babe Ruth is first, Ted Williams is second. However, the inclusion of the likes of Joe Carter (75) and Andre Dawson (72), coupled with the egregious overvaluation of Pete Rose (15), for example, takes away from the list's credibility. Moreover, many of his selections are premised on the player's high RBI totals or defensive reputation.
Interestingly, of all the lists I've come across over the years, there's never been any doubt about the fact that Ruth is the greatest baseball player of all-time. In no other major sport is this the case. In basketball, many believe Michael Jordan's the greatest, but others will firmly stand behind Wilt Chamberlain or Magic Johnson. In football, some will say Joe Montana, some will say Jim Brown, among others. Even hockey analysts debate over who the sport's greatest player has been throughout its history. Many believe it's Wayne Gretzky, but others firmly believe that a healthy Bobby Orr was the better player. In fact, in a list conducted by the The Sporting News (if my memory serves me correctly), Gretzky narrowly beat out Orr in the voting process. Moreover, some will claim (perhaps correctly) that Mario Lemieux is the greatest of all-time. In baseball no such divergence of opinions exists, because George Herman Ruth is simply the greatest. End of discussion.
One player in the book whom I've begun reading about lately is one Joe Cronin. Prior to reading this book, in which he's ranked 54th all-time, I recognized the name but knew very little about him. He had a remarkable life, full of a multitude of accomplishments at various levels in the game.
...The Sporting News named him the most the outstanding major league shortstop seven times.
He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1956. As a manager he won 1,236 and lost 1,055 (.540) and led Boston to his second pennant in 1946, the year after he retired as a player. In one of the most memorable of all World Series, Boston lost in seven games to St. Louis, as Enos Slaughter dashed home from first base on a single with the winning run in Game Seven. So Cronin never got his World Championship. Ted Williams still called him, "The best manager I ever played for."
After he retired as Boston manager in 1947, he was a Boston executive 11 years and was then named American League president in 1959. In his 14 years as president, the league expanded from eight to 12 teams.
I also recently stumbled across "The Joe Cronin Papers," posted on The Baseball Journals website, headed by Maury Brown. On the site, high resolution images of the documents can be viewed. Great work by Maury.
In the end, I highly recommend Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball and mildly recommend The Real 100 Best Baseball Players Of All Time...And Why!. Now, and perhaps more than ever, entertaining, well written book on all topics related to baseball are continually being published. It's a great time to be fan of the game.