Top of the Order: 25 Writers Pick Their Favorite Baseball Player of All Time
Edited by Sean Manning
Da Capo Press, 2010
List Price: $15.95
The concept of "Top of the Order" is a good one: "25 writers pick their favorite baseball players of all time." Original, never-before-published essays on 25 baseball heroes. How can you go wrong?
I mean, what if you lined up Roger Angell, Donald Honig, Peter Gammons, Rob Neyer, and Joe Posnanski? Maybe mix in some newer voices like Josh Wilker and Will Leitch. All writing about their favorite players, providing insight or some kind of personal connection.
Okay, what if you didn't get those guys, but still had some pretty good writers? Roger Kahn, Pat Jordan, Jim Bouton, Jonathan Eig '¦ maybe Jeff Pearlman. How about an ex-player turned writer, like Doug Glanville? Not bad. Get W.P. Kinsella to write the foreword. Sounds promising. Who else have you got? Some music and film critics? Eh. A couple of fiction writers? Okay. The lead singer for The Hold Steady? Gosh, why didn't you say so?
All right, maybe they're not all household names, or at least not in a household that spends a lot of time worshiping the national pastime. But can they write?
That's roughly, but not exactly, the path my mind wandered down as I perused "Top of the Order." Despite a lack of familiarity with most of the writers, I knew who almost all of the players were and the book cleared the first and biggest hurdle—escaping the box of review copies in my office.
Kinsella opens the festivities with his foreword, a lifetime of baseball fandom condensed to a stream of consciousness in which he rattles off nearly 25 players on his own. They range in talent and legacy from Bob Gibson on down to Spike Owen and 1950s minor leaguer Kirby Pain.
The real essays open with leadoff great Rickey Henderson, presented by Steve Almond. While I can't picture Angell or Honig finding room in a similar piece to mention Rickey's "considerable genital bulge," it was well done and put the book in scoring position early.
Next up, Pat Jordan on Tom Seaver. Very personal, recounting phone calls and visits with a man Jordan considers a lifelong friend. A couple chapters later, Eig pays tribute to Lou Gehrig, the subject of his 2005 biography. Bouton introduces us to Steve Dembowski, who was renowned at Fairleigh Dickinson University in the 1970s for his propensity to be hit by pitches. Kahn writes about his relationship with Jackie Robinson, whom he covered early in his writing career and later worked with on a short-lived monthly magazine called "Our Sports."
There are some fine pieces here. Some of the other better essays include Robert Whiting on Yutaka Enatsu, the great Japanese non-conformist pitcher, and Glanville on Garry Maddox, who was a mentor to him throughout his career. Carrie Rickey, a film critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer, gets creative with her ode to "Bull Durham's" Crash Davis.
Not surprisingly, however, in a collection of this sort there are valleys to counterbalance some of the peaks. Several of the writers seem to have chosen players they loved to root against, such as Roger Clemens, Tony Horton, and Jeff Kent. Michael Ian Black gives us a personal account of the day Mookie Wilson came to visit his school when he was 11, but while we learn a lot about Black, there's nothing here in the way of insight regarding Wilson himself.
Sean Manning, the editor of the book, chose Michael Jordan as his selection. He's still fired up, a decade and a half later, that journalists from Sports Illustrated and other national media outlets had the gall to ridicule Jordan's 1994 baseball dalliance. Never mind that they were correct in their assessment of his chances to reach the major leagues, or even succeed in the minors. But given the 1993 murder of James Jordan, Michael's father, SI should have been more sensitive. Maybe so, but Jordan as a favorite in this sport? Feels contrived.
Perhaps strangest of all is Esmeralda Santiago's piece on Vic Power, a man she never saw play. But she met him at a party one night in the mid-90s, and he was a gentleman, so he retroactively became her favorite. This she explains after kicking things off by describing some of the game's allure:
"The players are young men, plying their trade at the pinnacle of their strength and ability. They wear tight uniforms that display thigh muscles, sculpted buttocks, broad backs, muscled chests, six-pack abdomens. '¦ I nearly swooned when I saw the image of Jim Palmer in his Jockey briefs on an enormous billboard over Times Square in the late 1970s."
You lost me at "sculpted buttocks," Esmeralda.
I appreciate what Manning was trying to do. The eclectic roster of writers was by design, with the editor seeking voices we might not normally expect to hear in a baseball anthology. For those interested in reading how and why fans pick their heroes, maybe the mix is just right. I was hoping to learn more about the players—something someone with direct access could share that I haven't read a hundred other places—so to me "Top of the Order" felt like a pitch that just missed the sweet spot on the bat.
I still like the concept. With a revamped lineup this could have been a gem of a book.
James Bailey is a former associate editor at Baseball America. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.