MOVING TIME

Effectiive immediately, The Baseball Bookshelf is moving to a new host. Please visit at RKsBaseballBookshelf.wordpress.com. Thanks for your continued support and I look forward to seeing you there.

This is Audible: All Star edition

This is Audible, an annoyingly double-entendred podcast, devoted its July 10 episode to several baseball audio books,including:00bam

  • The Big Bam, an unabridged version of Leigh Montville’s 2006 biography on Babe Ruth. After
    an excerpt from narrator Scott Brick, the podcast’s host, Josephine Reed, conducts a telephone interview with the author that sounds as if it was heavily edited, as if she reworded her questions to fit in with his remarks. For an entity that counts so much on sounds, the presentation is very forced. (You can hear a sample here.)
  • The Glory of Their Times: The Story of the Early Days of Baseball Told by the Men Who00glory
    Played It
    , by Lawrence Ritter. Ritter is the granddaddy of audio/oral histories, setting the stage for those who came later, including Ken Burns. The excerpt includes his interview with Fred Snodgrass, a member of the New York Giants in the early part of the 20th century. (One thing I’ll say about TIA: they don’t skimp on the excerpts, as do some other audiobook sources.) Ritter, who schlepped around a large reel-to-reel tape recorder for his interviews, gets Snodgrass to tell an amusing story about Charles Victory Faust. Ritter’s other subjects are similarly charming, belying the image of ignorant, ill-spoken athletes. (Hear a sample here.)
  • Oobums
  • Bums, by Peter Golenbock. Golenbock, who came under scrutiny earlier this year for his
    salacious novel about Mickey Mantle, produced massive oral histories about several ball clubs, including the Cubs, Red Sox, Yankees, and Mets. In Bums, which originally came out shortly after Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer, he analyzes the Brooklyn Dodgers. Raymond Todd serves as narrator of this unabridged audiobook and, judging by the excerpt, does a good job in providing numerous "voices" representative of the people interviewed by the author. (Hear a sample here.)

00clemente

  • Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero, by David Maraniss. This audiobook
    is narrated by the author in an abridged version. While writers might not be professional performers, they lend a certain credibility to the project. Having written the words, they no doubt know how the aural portion should sound. Reed conducts an in-person interview with him, and it comes off much better, more natural than the one with Montville. (Hear a sample here.)

This special All-Star program is downloadable via iTunes and should be available soon at audible.com.

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.

Audio interview: Curt Smith on MLB.com

Curt Smith, author of The Voice, was interviewed on MLB.com in which he discusses.

Georgia’s Favorite Yiddisher Son, et al

From the July/August 2006 issue of American Jewish Life, an Atlanta-based publication, this profile of Ron Blomberg on the release of his memoir, Designated Hebrew.

The May/June 2007 issue features several baseball stories, including: 000ajlmayjune2007cover

Some All-Star Game Notes

PRE-GAME

FOX’s introduction — a bunch of players talking over each other about how special the All Star game is — made me think of James Earl Jones’ monologue in Field of Dreams; it even had that treacly FoD/The Natural music in the background.

As much of a fan as I am, I found myself wondering, "who are these guys?" I could understand staying away from the Yankees and Mets, stepping back from an East Coast-centric adulation, but I didn’t recognize a single player. If you want to promote these deserving players from around the majors, some IDs at the bottom of the frame would have been helpful. And for all the Hispanic players on the rosters, there seemed to be an under-representation during the intro.

The pre-game locker room pep talks from Tony LaRussa and Jim Leyland were interesting. Nice shot of Ichiro’s interpreter doing his job (more on that later).

You had to feel badly for that poor guy who tried to hit balls off a team in a Taco-Bell-sponsored contest. The pressure must have gotten to him (unless he just plain ******) as the crowd booed his dismal efforts to get the ball into their air to win beacoup dollars. His first attempt again reminded me of a scene in FoD in which Costner muffs his first attempt to hit a fungo to Shoeless Joe Jackson.

Since baseball is rooted so deeply in history, it was also nice to have Derek Jeter and Ken Griffey Jr. paying their respects to Willie Mays (Jeter respectfully referring to him as "Mr. Mays) in an interview. 00karros

Not to be too catty, but I find the pre-game team of Jeanne Zelasko, Kevin Kennedy, and Eric Karros most annoying. And what’s with Karros’ "Braniac" forehead/hair cut? I know it’s part of their job to shill for FOX, which is why I prefer games on ESPN or other sports channels because the viewer is safe from the inspipid promotion of other stations’ non-sports programs. The plugging of the upcoming Simpsons movie. Case in point: Zelasko’s "interview" with Homer (although the c00mag_5arto00sideshowon depictions of some of the players were cool; Maglio Ordonez = Sideshow Bob?).

At least FOX didn’t have reporters in the stands chatting up actors ("And here’s Keifer Sutherland, star of 24. Some, Keifer, which do you think Jack Bauer would more nerve-wracking? Fighting atomic terrorists or facing Billy Wagner?")

The player introductions were a bit unusual, queing up between third and second and second and first rather than the traditional first and third baselines. Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy, serving as an NL coach, got a nice ovation and the first crowd shots by FOX. Of course, Bonds got the biggest hand of the players. "Here you go, San Francisco…," said the PA announcer.

The formation made it easy for the players to stroll to center field in a nice orderly fashion to greet Mays after an odd rendition of the National Anthem by Chris Issak, accompanied by one of his band members. (I wonder how much it costs — and who pays for it — to have those jets fly in formation over stadiums at sporting events?)

At least Mays was able to walk in under his own power, unlike Ted Williams, who needed a golf cart.  I thought his "Say Hey" jacket was a bit undignified, but undoubtedly it will garner a nice bit of change somewhere down the line. He peeled that off, revealing a Giants’ jersey that seemed to be autographed (more money). Rather than throw the ceremonial first pitch from the mound, he threw it from center to Jose Reyes, for whom he also signed the ball, a nice gesture.

00_asmaystossMays then boarded a pink Cadillac in which there were a couple of boxes of balls. Being the cynical guy I am, I envisioned those also being peddled at some memorabilia show, but I was wrong. Mays tossed them to the crowd, gave one to a cop on the field, and another to umpire Bruce Froemming, who will retire at the end of the season.

The first pitch came at 8:54 EST. On the other hand, the festivities started at 5:00 local time, which must have seemed odd for those in attendance.

Cal Ripken Jr. and Ozzie Smith were somewhat wooden as they read the starting lineups for the AL and NL teams respectively. Ozzie Smith? Seems that Tony Gwynn would have been a better pairing with Ripken, since they’re both being undicuted into the Hall of Fame in a few weeks. I’m sure FOX producers thought of that and Gwynn was just too busy to attend.

POST-GAME

In the postgame show, with very few people remaining in the stands, Zelasko served as MC while Commissioner Seilg presented Ichiro with the MVP award. Some unidentified representative from Chevy made a very dramatic presentation by…drawing…out… each…phrase ("New …2008.. Chevy…Tahoe…Hybrid").

Ichiro certainly had a productive day, hitting the first inside-the-park home run in AS history hours after signing a multi, multi-million dollar extension to remain a Mariner.

The home run, courtesy of YouTube. (Have patience, it takes awhile while Brain Roberts works out a walk before Ichiro comes up).

Pardon me, but how long has Ichiro been playing in the U.S.? 00asichiromvp But there he was, with an interpreter, fielding Zalaskie’s questions, along the lines of "Did you know you had the first inside-the-park home run" etc. This dragged out the interview even longer. Since such queries are basically the same game after game, why not have Kevin Costner teach Ichiro how to work those cliches, like he did in Bull Durham?

"He loves you, San Francisco. He can hit home runs and he’s gonna be a free agent," Zelasko said at the end of the interview. Wince.

Who’s airing the game next year?

Briefly…

Steve Buckley, a sports columnist for the Boston Herald, gives his picks for summer reading, mostly baseball with some older titles mixed in with more recent ones. His list includes Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero, by David Maraniss; Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season, by Jonathan Eig; Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero and The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth, both by Leigh Montville; Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life, by Richard Ben Cramer; License to Deal: A Season on the Run with a Maverick Baseball Agent, by Jerry Crasnick; Wait Till Next Year: A Memoir, by Doris Kearns Goodwin; and Big Papi: My Story of Big Dreams and Big Hits, by David Ortiz with Tony Massarotti.

* * *

KPBS, the public radio affiliate in San Diego, presented two recent baseball-related segments, one featuring Frank Deford, author of The Entitled, a new baseball novel (the audio interview is linked to the page) and another on The Card: Collectors, Con Men, and the True Story of History’s Most Desired Baseball Card, by Michael O’Keeffe (audio here).

* * *

FYI — According to an article in the August 2007 issue of Population Research and Policy Review, the average Major League Baseball career is 5.6 years.

“Poets are like pitchers”

00frostbaseball_2

Poets are like baseball pitchers. Both have their moments. The intervals are the tough things.

Robert Frost

Frost’s favorite baseball team was the Boston Red Sox; his favorite player was Ted Williams. After attending an all-star game in Washington in 1956, Frost wrote a story for Sports Illustrated, "A Perfect Day – A Day of Prowess."

Review: 1941: The Greatest Year in Sports

1941: The Greatest Year in Sports
by Mike Vacarro (Doubleday, 2006)

001941_1 While he does cover other sports in his newest offering, Mike Vaccaro, New York Post sportswriter and author of Emperors and Idiots, one of the endless stream of titles about the Red Sox-Yankees 2004 season, spends most of his prose on a quartet of baseball stars — Hank Greenberg, Bob Feller, Joe DiMaggio, and Ted Williams — “who made history in the shadow of the War.”

Vaccaro sheds some light — perhaps unwanted — about the circumstances surrounding the registration, enlistment, and induction of the ballplayers. Fans tend to forget that these athletes were mostly in their twenties when the war broke out, in the midst of a profession that by definition was short-lived. For some reason, perhaps because they are sports heroes, they are held to a higher standard, as if no one else facing conscription tried to work the draft system to his advantage, seeking deferment or other considerations.

Greenberg, writes Vaccaro, had the misfortune of registering in Detroit, where he lived during the season, rather than his Bronx, NY home. Because his Michigan precinct was less densely populated than New York, his number came up quickly. It was because he was a celebrity that the draft board was determined to show no favoritism. So like Feller and Williams, Greenberg lost several prime years to the service of his country (DiMaggio spent most of his time playing baseball, as a morale booster for the troops, and never saw combat). And if they weren’t ecstatic about their situations …well, who be? Even Job complained. That would seem to be the norm, not the exception.

Non-fans at the time made no bones about these physically fit specimens who even thought of seeking relief. Vaccaro includes an example of consternation:

Bobby Feller soured himself on the public when he said he wouldn’t seek deferment — but let his mother and yourselves in the newspaper field go to bat for him. Anyone would be silly to think he didn’t know what his mother was writing to the draft board seeking exemption on account of having dependents.

1941 does a credible job of conveying the excitement of DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak and Williams’ chase for .400, but these topics have been covered in other books. Where Vaccaro excels is in balancing seemingly trivial athletic pursuits with the life-and-death issues of WW II. Of course, there’s always a problem, especially in the world of sports, of declaring anything "the greatest." But it does make for some interesting reflection and discussion.