The spring of 2009 flooded us with books on steroid users in various stages of outing. Roger Clemens had already fallen to earth. Alex Rodriguez was taken down, thanks in part to Selena Roberts’ book. Manny Ramirez hadn’t yet joined them when “Becoming Manny” hit the shelves. We even had a title from clubhouse insider/supplier Kirk Radomski.
All those books made headlines. None made our list of Best Baseball Books of 2009.
In a quieter corner of the baseball bookstore, you will find many well-written, intriguing titles worth your time and money. Some of them may have slipped under the radar, but what they lack in volume they make up for in substance and style. From the College World Series in Omaha to the dusty minor league towns in the Texas League where two families were forever changed—and entwined—by a wicked foul ball, from the 1860s when the catcher emerged as a folk hero to the 1970s when the Big Red Machine roared to back-to-back titles, we’ve got the best the year had to offer.
1. Heart of the Game: Life, Death and Mercy in Minor League America
By S.L. Price
It’s a clichéd ambition to pass out of this life doing what you love: the fisherman with his fly rod, the golfer in the tee box, the baseball lifer on the diamond. Mike Coolbaugh—a survivor of 17 years in the bush leagues—met his end on a ball field in North Little Rock, Arkansas. His passion for baseball, however, provided scant consolation to those who knew and loved him—and even less to the man who hit the foul ball that dropped him in the first base coach’s box two years ago.
In “Heart of the Game,” S.L. Price does much more than tell the story of Coolbaugh’s death at the age of 35. He celebrates Coolbaugh’s life, which revolved around his family every bit as much as it did his long career in professional baseball. Price intertwines this with the story of Tino Sanchez, who lives with the undeserved guilt of that deadly line drive.
Coolbaugh’s death wouldn’t likely have been so universally mourned had he died in a car wreck. Maybe the Texas League wouldn’t have taken up a collection for his widow and kids. Maybe his sons wouldn’t have thrown out the first pitch at the Rockies’ first home playoff game that fall. And that would have been a shame, because the Coolbaugh we meet in “Heart of the Game” is an everyman underdog with a twist: He’s a better person than we are, but we like him anyway. And he deserves to have been immortalized in these pages.
2. As They See ‘Em: A Fan’s Travels in the Land of Umpires
By Bruce Weber
As impossible dreams go, the odds minor league umpires face are significantly longer than those overcome by the 1967 Red Sox. With virtually no turnover at the major league level, all but the best aspiring arbiters are generally dismissed after eight to 10 grueling years climbing the ladder.
Their journey begins at umpire school, where Bruce Weber got to know many dreamers, as well as the more experienced umps on hand to train them. Weber, on assignment for the New York Times, visited the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring in Kissimmee, Fla. After writing several pieces for the paper, he became fascinated with the umpiring community and decided it warranted more than he could cover in the Times.
Weber returned to the Evans Academy, this time as a student in the school’s five-week program. His 120 classmates included a former Marine recruiter, a painting contractor, a cattle rancher—men from a wide variety of backgrounds, many looking to start over on a career that paid next to nothing. Later he caught up with some of his classmates as they worked the lower rungs of the ladder. Weber visited with umpires at various levels of the minors and spent quite a bit of time with major league umps as well, eliciting plenty of interesting tales.
Weber’s immersion into the world of umpires resulted in an insider story that most insiders couldn’t share without fear of being blacklisted. “As They See ‘Em” is an entertaining and informative book that helps to humanize the judges on the field.
3. Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend
By Larry Tye
The veteran journalist pays honor to his subject with this in-depth biography that focuses on both the Hall of Fame pitcher’s exploits on the field and his place in American folklore. Tye interviewed more than 200 Negro and major leaguers who had played with or against Paige. We know how memory can play tricks and exploits become greater over time, but all the anecdotal information agrees that the tall, spindly hurler was one of a kind, whether blazing a fastball by an opponent, or speeding along in one of his prized cars.
Unfortunately, Paige was caught in a typical situation for older African-American players of that era: Despite his experience and years of success, he was deemed too old to make a contribution on the major league level. And, unlike Jackie Robinson, Paige was considered the “wrong kind of Negro,” which in the code of the day meant he would not allow anyone to tell him how to comport himself, even if it meant not making it to the bigs.
Many of the stories have been told before: the barnstorming tours with Dizzy Dean and Bob Feller; his pinpoint control and showmanship; how he held future Yankee great Joe DiMaggio to a scratch single (that accomplishment alone earned a glowing scouting report for the young ballplayer); and how he hauled his tired old body to the mound to help the Cleveland Indians win the American League pennant in 1948.
“Satchel” was selected by The New York Times as one of the 100 notable books of 2009, the only baseball title to earn that distinction.
4. Catcher: How the Man behind the Plate Became an American Folk Hero
By Peter Morris
Ivan R. Dee
Long before catchers actually had tools of ignorance, brave—or crazy—young men clamped their teeth around a chunk of rubber and crept up behind the batter to receive pitches barehanded. When their gnarled fingers split open or a foul ball collided with their skull they got back up and kept at it, earning the respect of their peers and the admiration of the spectators in the grandstand.
Part daredevil, part cowboy, these early catchers made themselves indispensable with a reckless disregard for their own safety. No team could hope to contend without a star receiver. The growth of the position significantly affected the evolution of the young game in the latter part of the 19th century.
One of the game’s more prolific historians, Morris went back in time through newspapers and other periodicals from the 1800s, reconstructing the development of both the game and the men behind the plate. This really is a history of the whole game in many ways, because the changes at catcher had such a deep impact on the way baseball was played. Before you’re done reading you’ll begin to wonder why so many of the Hall of Famers from the 19th century are pitchers and so few catchers (only Buck Ewing and Mike “King” Kelly have been enshrined). It took a lot more gumption to stand behind the plate and catch those balls than it did to stand on the mound and throw them.
5. Sixty Feet, Six Inches
By Bob Gibson, Reggie Jackson, and Lonnie Wheeler
Imagine sitting in on a conversation between two of baseball’s all-time greats. A Hall of Fame pitcher and a Hall of Fame hitter discussing the intricacies of the game then and now. That’s the concept of “Sixty Feet, Six Inches,” a running dialogue between Bob Gibson and Reggie Jackson. It’s a unique look inside the game for any fan and a gold mine of information for a young player. In fact, it ought to be required reading for any aspiring player.
The discussion goes way beyond anecdotes, though there are plenty of those to rekindle memories for fans of Gibson’s Cardinals and Jackson’s Athletics and Yankees. The two talk about strategy, mechanics, talent, game scenarios and a lot more. Both are still involved in the game, decades after their playing careers concluded.
Veteran sportswriter Lonnie Wheeler, who collaborated with Gibson on the pitcher’s autobiography, introduces the book, then gets out of the way. He guides the conversation from behind the scenes without oversteering, allowing the two Hall of Famers to play off each other. They have so much to share here that this book will warrant many repeated readings.
6. The Road to Omaha: Hits, Hopes and History at the College World Series
By Ryan McGee
Thomas Dunne Books
If you’ve ever considered heading to Omaha for the College World Series, but don’t have the travel budget to attend, you should check out Ryan McGee’s “The Road to Omaha.” For less than the price of dinner at one of Omaha’s famed steakhouses you can submerge yourself in the festival-like atmosphere of the CWS.
McGee had unfettered access to players, coaches, grounds crew, fans—even a streaker—during the 2008 CWS, and he brings it all out in rich detail in his book. Each chapter weaves the history and pomp into a day’s action at Rosenblatt Stadium as the field of eight is whittled down to eventual champion Fresno State.
Though you know the Bulldogs will wind up on top, there’s enough drama built into the game recaps to keep things interesting. But it’s not the game summaries that make the book a page turner. It’s the up-close look at the players who poured their guts into getting their team to Omaha, and wept when their seasons—and in some cases, careers—came to an end.
To relive the CWS as McGee describes it, you better plan on getting to Omaha next year. The clock is ticking on Rosenblatt Stadium, which is slated to be replaced by a new downtown ballpark in 2011. The NCAA and people of Omaha hope to maintain the atmosphere and tradition, but things will certainly be different after the move.
7. The Machine: A Hot Team, a Legendary Season, and a Heart-stopping World Series: The Story of the 1975 Cincinnati Reds
By Joe Posnanski
If Pete Rose ever slides from outcast over to the forgiven side of the ledger, he’ll owe at least some small debt to Joe Posnanski’s “The Machine.” After two decades of reading and hearing only about the myriad ways Rose destroyed his legacy, we are reminded how he built it up in the first place. Here’s Rose, flying at us straight out of the cover, cocky, confident, and competitive, driving his teammates to glory in one of the greatest seasons in baseball history.
Posnanski, who was just 8 years old in 1975 when the Reds topped the Red Sox in an unforgettable World Series, cites Rose in his acknowledgments as “the stimulus for this book.” Rose, as well as most of his teammates and several other contemporaries, discussed the Big Red Machine with Posnanski, who weaved their stories together into a diary of the ’75 season.
As laid out by manager Sparky Anderson in spring training, Rose was one of the club’s four superstars. The others: Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, and Tony Perez. The rest of the team? “Turds.” That’s what Anderson called them. He made no pretense about playing favorites. Some of the turds might not have liked it, but you can’t argue with the results.
“The Machine” is an entertaining reminder of a time before free agency, when a club could compile a roster of superstars and beat back all comers. Anyone who followed baseball in the 1970s should enjoy this book. Reds fans, who haven’t had a lot to cheer consistently since the heyday of the Big Red Machine, are going to want to read it more than once.
8. Baseball Americana: Treasures from the Library of Congress
By Harry Katz, Frank Ceresi, Phil Michel, Wilson McBee, and Susan Reyburn
Smithsonian Books/Harper Collins
Of all the genres of baseball books, my favorite is the coffee table edition. Usually published as “gift books,” they are among the most well-produced, handsome and eclectic titles available each year. This year’s “best in show” belongs to “Baseball Americana.” It combines the best of all worlds: concise text, gorgeous illustrations, and a thoughtful layout.
Many books of this kind rely on the classic photos that are reproduced time and again: Ty Cobb sliding into a base with his spikes high; Mantle and Maris standing back to back in a 1961 pose; Yankees skipper Casey Stengel winking at the photographer. Not so here, thanks to hundreds of thousands of pieces in the collection of the Library of Congress from which these few hundred were culled.
Imagine the fun of sifting through all those old photos, pieces of sheet music, baseball cards and more. Time well spent by the quintet who worked on this volume, including Harry Katz, Frank Ceresi, Phil Michel, Wilson McBee, and Susan Reyburn.
“Baseball Americana” serves as a reminder that, more than any other sport, baseball is much more than what takes place on the field. It affects much of the nation’s, and even the world’s popular culture. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t include much of anything from after the 1960s. On the other hand, perhaps that leaves the door open for a second volume.
9. The Fifth Season, Tales of My Life in Baseball
By Donald Honig
Ivan R. Dee
Donald Honig has written a lot of baseball books over the years, most notably “Baseball When the Grass Was Real,” “The October Heroes” and “Baseball America.” He made a name for himself as a baseball chronicler who attained access to countless former ballplayers. In “The Fifth Season, Tales of My Life in Baseball,” Honig takes us back in time so we can go along for the ride with him. Much of the book is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of his previous books.
Honig starts the journey back in his childhood in Maspeth, Long Island, where he grew up a rabid Brooklyn Dodgers fan. Though he dabbled in short stories from an early age, Honig was an indifferent student who quit attending school around junior high. Signed to a contract by the Boston Red Sox as a pitching prospect at age 16, he lasted all of one spring training, though the memories lasted a lifetime. He chronicles the eye-opening experiences both on the field and on the streets of Eau Gallie, Fla., that led up to a disheartening and long train ride home.
Honig’s writing belies his lack of formal education. His text flows marvelously and he ties just about every detail together. Even most of the early stories of life in Maspeth become relevant again later in the memoir. It wasn’t until the last chapter, however, that he answered my biggest question. What was the fifth season? Beyond spring, summer, fall and winter there is baseball season, which in some way stretches across all of the others.
10. The First Fall Classic: The Red Sox, the Giants and the Cast of Players, Pugs and Politicos Who Re-Invented the World Series in 1912
By Mike Vacarro
New York fans have been spoiled, accustomed to reading book after book about the most successful franchise in the sports industry. Which makes publications like “The First Fall Classic” that much more appreciated.
Many modern-day fans don’t realize that even 100 years ago baseball was a business, and owners and players were always out for the most money they could get. So it shouldn’t be shocking to learn that the owner of the Red Sox instructed his manager to hold back their ace from the possible championship-clinching game at the Polo Grounds so Boston could win at Fenway, thereby putting more money in his pocket. Not to mention the near-strike by the players who wanted a bigger share of the Series money.
The title is, of course, technically inaccurate if one ascribes the epithet “Fall Classic” to each World Series. And whether it deserves to be singled out as an especially exciting or dramatic one is open to interpretation. Then there’s the seemingly disjunctive inclusion of a major “trial of the century” that took place during the season.
Suffice it to say, Vacarro, a sportswriter for the New York Post, brings the same entertaining prose and journalist’s mania for detail to the table that he did for his two previous baseball titles: “1941: The Greatest Year In Sports: Two Baseball Legends, Two Boxing Champs, and the Unstoppable Thoroughbred Who Made History in the Shadow of War” and “Emperors and Idiots: The Hundred Year Rivalry Between the Yankees and Red Sox, From the Very Beginning to the End of the Curse.” Both are great books, but someone should talk to the author about shortening his titles.
James Bailey is a former associate editor at Baseball America. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com. Ron Kaplan is the sports editor for a weekly New Jersey newspaper and blogs about baseball literature and other media at Ron Kaplan’s Baseball Bookshelf (rksbaseballbookshelf.wordpress.com).