By James Bailey
In baseball literary circles, 2010 will be remembered as the year of the biography. We had noteworthy releases this year on Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Joe Cronin, and Charles Radbourn. Roger Maris fell short of Cooperstown, but the new bio on him ranks right up there with the other greats, as does that of late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who appeared for the first time on the veterans committee ballot this fall.
We could almost have compiled a top 10 out of nothing but biographies. But that wouldn’t be as much fun, so Mays and Cronin, both strong works, will have to settle for near-miss status. Releases from Josh Wilker and pitcher-turned-penman Dirk Hayhurst give us variety. We even have that rare breed, the realistic baseball novel, courtesy of Jeff Gillenkirk. Not all of these titles were big budget releases, for sure. In fact, we found a spot at No. 10 for Lee Panas’ self-published guide to sabermetric statistics, the bookshelf’s version of a nondrafted free agent who makes it to the big leagues.
1. The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood.
By Jane Leavy (HarperCollins)
The only baseball title included in Publishers Weekly’s Top 100, “The Last Boy” is the product of five years of Jane Leavy’s life. The acclaimed author of “Sandy Koufax” interviewed more than 500 people while researching her childhood hero. She chose 20 key events from his playing days and later, interspersing them with memories of a weekend in Atlantic City spent interviewing Mantle while working on a feature story for her newspaper in 1983. Most of Mantle’s offenses have been written about before, so Leavy wasn’t looking to shock anyone with his exploits. What she does, is humanize him. Without excusing his behavior, she explains how this fatalistic son of an Oklahoma miner became the man he was both publicly and privately.
2. The Bullpen Gospels: Major League Dreams of a Minor League Veteran.
By Dirk Hayhurst (Citadel Press)
If life in the minor leagues seems at all glamorous from where you sit, Dirk Hayhurst would like you to know it’s not that way for most players. There may be a few high-round picks living large, but the majority of players on the average minor league roster are grinding it out, day by day. Hayhurst, who made 15 appearances for the Blue Jays in 2009, turned his 2007 season into “The Bullpen Gospels.” Alternately poignant and hilarious, the book provides insider’s access to a minor league clubhouse. As Hayhurst declares up front, the “book’s purpose is to entertain, not to name names.” It has been called a minor league “Ball Four,” though it isn’t a tell-all. It is, however, so funny in parts you may have to stop reading until you catch your breath.
3. Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards.
By Josh Wilker (Seven Footer Press)
When the time came to clean out the storage unit in Vermont where his family’s material treasures had been entombed, Josh Wilker found a box of memories in the form of baseball cards of the 1970s and early ’80s, Yaz and Rickey and Rowland Office, just as he’d left them. Only now they were different. They brought introspection, summoning lessons learned growing up in a one-of-a-kind, yet all-American household in rural New England. In 2006, Wilker began blogging about his collection. This laid the groundwork for “Cardboard Gods,” his outstanding memoir. Each chapter ties a card to a memory, from childhood into adulthood. The book is a funny, honest, self-deprecating look back that may ring a few bells for others out there who grew up hoarding cards in the same era.
4. The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron.
By Howard Bryant (Pantheon)
Howard Bryant does a great job of putting Henry Aaron’s career in the context of his life. Where contemporaries like Willie Mays were able in some ways to transcend race, Aaron couldn’t and didn’t. Despite his obvious greatness on the field, he became a target of both teammates and the press and grew distrustful of everyone around him. The wall of privacy he constructed resulted in two different Aarons. Hank was the heroic hitter who made the all-star team 21 years in a row. Henry was the man inside, who was so much more complex than most people knew. While Aaron cooperated on this project, he didn’t completely open up. Still, Bryant brings the reader as close to Henry as most will ever get.
5. Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball.
By Bill Madden (HarperCollins)
There was rarely a dull moment in New York after George Steinbrenner purchased the Yankees in 1973, and veteran sportswriter Bill Madden was there for most of the era. Tape-recorded notes left by former team president Gabe Paul, along with numerous interviews with former club executives, paint an insider’s version of life in the chaotic front office under the mercurial Steinbrenner. One needn’t be a Yankee fan to enjoy “Steinbrenner.” While Madden strives to provide balance, showing the lesser-known compassionate side of the Yankees owner, many of the anecdotes will leave you wondering how anyone could have worked for the man.
6. Home, Away: A Novel.
By Jeff Gillenkirk (Chin Music Press)
Jason Thibodeaux, the man at the center of Jeff Gillenkirk’s debut novel, is a major league pitcher who is separated from his son Rafe for years. From the field he watches strangers share special times with their kids while his is a thousand miles away. When a teenage Rafe is thrust back into Jason’s life, he has to choose between his career and his son. The author’s research on divorce and fatherhood pays off with believable characters damaging and mending relationships. The hatred and anger between Jason and his ex-wife feels real, and often heartbreaking, as is the hurt felt by Rafe, who was given a slanted explanation of why his father walked out when he was 8.
7. Fifty-nine in ’84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball & the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had.
By Edward Achorn (Smithsonian Books/HarperCollins)
Old-time ballplayers are often critical of today’s pitchers, who are protected by pitch counts, bullpens and the five-man rotation. Starters of prior generations worked on shorter rest and were expected to finish what they began. Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn started 73 games in 1884—and he finished them all. Radbourn established the big league record for wins that year with 59—in a 112-game season—while logging 679 innings. For most of the second half of the year, he was a one-man rotation. At one stretch Radbourn made 22 consecutive starts for the Providence Grays, winning 19 of them. Edward Achorn does an admirable job chronicling this incredible campaign.
8. Roger Maris: Baseball’s Reluctant Hero.
By Tom Clavin and Danny Peary (Touchstone)
Through the first 28 games of the 1961 season, Roger Maris had three home runs. Always a streaky hitter, the reigning American League MVP caught fire, launching four longballs in the Yankees’ next four games, and his season became one for the record books as he finished with 61. “Roger Maris” follows a similar arc, and once it takes off, it soars. Tom Clavin and Danny Peary interviewed more than 130 people, from friends and acquaintances in Maris’ hometown of Fargo, N.D., to teammates and opponents from his 16 seasons in baseball. Through all that life handed him, Maris remained the same strong-willed yet humble man until he died at age 51 in 1985.
9. Final Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball, 1972-2008.
By Dean Sullivan (University of Nebraska Press)
When Dean Sullivan embarked on his ambitious project to trace baseball’s past through documents, there wasn’t nearly as much history to cover as there was by the time he finished. Sullivan’s fourth volume was released this summer, 13 years after the first book in the series. The collection differs from most baseball histories in that Sullivan lets original documents tell the tale. As editor, he introduces each entry, providing the context, then steps aside. In all, there are 105 documents included in “Final Innings.” It’s not a quick read, and at times it’s not a fun read. But it’s important material. Even those who followed things closely as they happened will learn new details and be reminded of things they forgot (or suppressed) over time.
10. Beyond Batting Average: Baseball Statistics for the 21st Century.
By Lee Panas (Lulu)
For fans who want to learn more about new sabermetric statistics, “Beyond Batting Average” is a great resource that can easily be followed by any student of the game. Panas discusses hitting, pitching and fielding measures in detail. Readers will learn about isolated power, win probability added, FIP, BABIP, range factor, zone rating and much more. He concludes with a chapter on total player contribution, where he breaks down stats like win shares and wins above replacement. What the book does particularly well is explain complicated concepts in simple terms. By tracing the evolution of statistics in each category it progressively builds the reader’s knowledge.