I am a serious sports fan. Baseball is far and away my favorite sport. But I follow football, basketball, hockey, and even tennis, golf, auto racing, soccer and cricket. Most things that make their way here will be about baseball, I am afraid. But a few other things will likely creep in.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50-Year Friendship On and Off the Court. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2017.
This is not your ordinary sports book. It is about the life-long friendship of a 7’2″ black from Harlem and a 5’10” white from southern Indiana. Both had Hall of Fame careers in basketball. Kareem (then known as Lew Alcindor) played for Wooden’s UCLA juggernauts during the period when they won 10 national championships in 12 years. But they formed a deep friendship that covered not just basketball but all aspects of life, including religion, race, literature, and many other subjects. They would meet regularly for 50 years, up until Wooden’s death in 2010 at the age of 99, at Wooden’s home, in restaurants, on trips. Abdul-Jabbar talks about all the surprises in their relationship, and all the things he learned from Wooden about life. There is a subtext as well, less well articulated, about how Kareem influenced Wooden. It’s an extraordinary book. That it’s well-written is no surprise, as Abdul-Jabbar has a long career as an excellent writer of both fiction and nonfiction. Judy and I once sat two tables from him at a local restaurant one evening, a memory all the more wonderful given his interesting post-basketball career as a writer.
Jim Bouton. Ball Four: The Final Pitch. North Egremont, MA: Bulldog Publishing, 1970, 1981, 1990, 2000.
This is one of the very best books ever written about baseball, or any sport, for that matter. It caused a sensation when it was first published in 1970. Bowie Kuhn, who was the Commissioner of Baseball at the time, asked Bouton to sign a statement saying the book wasn’t true. He of course refused. He had kept a diary of the 1969 season, when he played for the expansion team the Seattle Pilots (who, by the way, after only one year in Seattle, moved to Milwaukee to become the Brewers) before being traded to the Houston Astros late in the season. He tells it like it was, no holds barred. It was the first book that covered the realities of a major professional sport, as opposed to the myths. It is incredibly entertaining reading, even if some of it is neither politically correct or nice. This edition, published 30 years after the original, contains three long epilogues, each written at 10-year intervals, and entitled Ball Five, Ball Six, and Ball Seven, where he reflects back on the players, the other people of the game, his own life, and the game itself. Ball Seven contains several very poignant entries, including the death of his daughter Laurie, the scare about the possible death of his wife, the end of his playing career, and his ultimately being invited back to the Old Timers’ Day at Yankee Stadium, due to an incredible Father’s Day gift from one of his sons. Interestingly, the New York Public Library included Ball Four on its list of the 100 most significant books of the 20th century.
Wade Davis. Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.
Everest is of course the centerpiece of many of the mountain climbing narratives. This terrific account traces the numerous failed attempts that captured much attention and many lives, leading up to the first successful climb by Sir. Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953. The 1924 unsuccessful attempt by George Mallory and Sandy Irvine was an especially noteworthy attempt, and ended in the mysterious disappearance of the two. But Davis provides very interesting historical, political, and cultural context for this and other early attempts at Everest. The book is as much a social, cultural history of an era as an account of daring mountaineering.
Nicholas Dawidoff (Ed.). Baseball: A Literary Anthology. New York: The Library of America.
I wouldn’t normally include an anthology in this bookshelf. But two reasons motivate me to do this one. First, I love the Library of America. It is a stunning collection of American literature, done in handsome and affordable volumes. Second, this particular volume includes many of my favorite baseball pieces. I love everything Roger Angell has written about baseball. But the list of other authors is incredible: Carl Sandburg, Heywood Broun, Jim Bouton, Roger Kahn, George Plimpton, A. Bartlett Giamatti, David Remnick, Richard Ford, and Buster Olney are only a few. But my alltime favorite piece is here: John Updike’s “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” about Ted Williams last game. Brilliant.
Doris Kearns Goodwin. Wait Till Next Year. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.
This charming volume is about growing up in the 1950s, as a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers. But it’s so much more than just baseball, as she traces life in the suburbs of New York City in that era. It’s about the neighborhood, and all the friends and characters that inhabit it. It’s about her family, and of course, about herself. But the narrative is woven into her passion for the Dodgers, and the many ups and downs of the 50s: Bobby Thomson’s home run in 1951, the seemingly endless losses to the Yankees in the World Series, culminating in the magical 1955 season where the Dodgers finally won, and of course the ultimate down, when the Dodgers announce they are moving to Los Angeles after the 1957 season. The stories are priceless. And, in an Epilogue, she describes her new love of the Boston Red Sox, and of course their many frustrations (at least up to the time this book was written).
Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver. Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.
I am not a mountain climber, and never aspired to be one. But I have long been fascinated with reading about them, and this is one of the very best books on the subject that I’ve encountered. What’s especially interesting about this is the account of the evolution of the domain. Advances include better equipment, knowledge of the mountains, understanding the weather, and of course superior techniques. One of the most amazing accomplishments is Reinhold Messner climbing Everest in 1980 all alone and without supplemental oxygen. But scores of other striking accomplishments are chronicled in this excellent volume. The text is accompanied by excellent photographs, maps, and charts of routes used in various climbs.
Michael Leahy. The Last Innocents: The Collision of the Turbulent Sixties and the Los Angeles Dodgers. New York: Harper Collins, 2016.
The 1960s were an extraordinary time in American history. This most interesting volume traces the history of the Los Angeles Dodgers amidst the events of that decade. It was a different era in the sport, with no free agency and other great changes. The lives of many Dodgers were intimately connected with the events of the times. For instance, Maury Wills lived in Watts, and experienced all the anguish of the Watts riots in 1965. I of course remember 1965 as the year the Minnesota Twins played the Dodgers in the World Series, and the drama of those games is recounted here from the Dodgers players’ perspectives.
Lee Lowenfish. Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman. Lincoln, NE, 2007.
Branch Rickey was responsible for three major changes in baseball. Everyone knows that in 1947 he elevated Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers, the first black player in the major leagues in the 20th century. But he had two other important innovations. Starting in the 1940s, he built up the St. Louis Cardinal’s farm system, an innovation that allowed small- and modest-sized-markets to develop good teams. And, in the late 1950s, he was a principal in trying to form a third major league, dubbed the Continental League, which finally forced the hands of the two existing leagues to expand beyond their respective 8 members. This initially brought baseball to Minnesota (the Twins) and California (the Angels) to the American League in 1961, and to New York (the Mets) and Houston (the Colt 45s, later the Astros) in the National League. This began the expansion ultimately from 16 teams to 30. Rickey was a colorful figure, and Lowenfish’s detailed biography is full of good stories about Rickey’s long involvement in baseball, spanning two thirds of the 20th century. Interestingly, one of his most frustrating moments was the takeover of the Dodgers by Walter O’Malley, the subject of Andy McCue’s excellent biography.
Andy McCue. Mover & Shaker: Walter O’Malley, the Dodgers, & Baseball’s Westward Expansion. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2014.
The story of how the Dodgers, and of course also the Giants, ended up on the West Coast is a major chapter in the 20th century history of baseball. While there is much mythology about the Dodgers’ move, and O’Malley himself, McCue does a masterful job of setting the record straight. I got interested in this topic for two reasons: first, I now live in Southern California, so the Dodgers are a local team, and therefore of great interest; but second, I am a lifelong Minnesota Twins fan, and the Dodgers move to the West Coast prevented what could have been the Giants move to Minnesota. O’Malley knew that for the Dodgers move to be viable, there had to be a second team to justify the long trips required by other teams, and the Giants faced the same issues as the Dodgers: poor stadium, poor finance, and indifferent political leaders in the New York area. Both the Dodgers and Giants have flourished on the West Coast, and of course through moves and expansion, the whole character of baseball changed.
Jeff Passan. The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports. New York: Harper Collins, 2016.
The human arm, apparently, was not meant to throw a baseball nearly 100 miles an hour. Yet Major League Baseball teams highly value those who can do it. Very few of them escape unscathed. Many end their careers with arm injuries. A number have their careers interrupted, and following surgery and extensive recovery (the so-called Tommy John procedure) make it back. Alas, many youngsters ruin their arms before they ever get a chance to play professionally. This book tells the gripping story of such folk, including Hall of Famers like Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan, who avoided surgery but had painful arms in much of their remarkable careers. There is almost no likelihood it will ever end, given the economics of the sport. While there are efforts to do something, they are plagued by lack of knowledge, mixed motives, and the overriding demands of the game.
Jerald Podair. City of Dreams: Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017.
I’ve known a fair amount about the story of how Dodger Stadium came to be, but this book provided for me the first really detailed account of all the twists and turns. It was anything but a simple and straightforward matter. While a large impetus for Walter O’Malley’s move of the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles was the promise of prime land to build a new stadium, the way in which the saga unfolded was full of drama. Chavez Ravine was owned by the city, but still occupied by some Latino families who had not moved out earlier when the city considered, but backed away from, building low income housing on the site. A contract was signed and delivered to O’Malley, but its legality and approval was fought in public, including a voter referendum, and in the courts, all the way to the US Supreme Court. In the end, O’Malley won, and the stadium was built. But Podair sets the story in the context of southern California politics and the mixed ambitions of the citizens and politicians of Los Angeles. He casts Dodger Stadium as the first step in the process of turning Los Angeles into a major international city. I cannot vouch for that, but I found the details of the steps leading to Dodger Stadium becoming a reality to be fascinating. My one complaint about the book is that Podair is very repetitive. Some better editing could have produced a briefer, but equally clear story.
Curt Smith. Pull Up a Chair: The Vin Scully Story. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2009.
Vin Scully retired at the end of the 2016 season, so it is a good time to reflect back on this excellent biography of the great sportscaster. He first began broadcasting Dodger games in 1950! His voice is so iconic. Interestingly, he’s the broadcaster in the great movie, For Love of the Game, which is not about the Dodgers, but about the Tigers. Sadly, a dispute among cable TV providers kept Scully out of the homes of nearly 2/3 of the Los Angeles area the last three years of his career, including our home. But I can still hear his voice. In my experience, he’s up there with Ernie Harwell, the long-time voice of the Tigers.
Judith Testa. Sal Maglie: Baseball’s Demon Barber. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2007.
One of the many pleasures of baseball is all of the interesting characters that have been part of the game. This is an especially rich biography of one of my favorite players, known as “the Barber” because of his high, inside pitches that gave batters a close shave (a little “chin music,” as they said). While this is a somewhat scholarly treatise, it still has the drama and personal interest of this fascinating player’s life. For fans of the 50s, it is a great trip down memory lane.