Image credit: George Steinbrenner (right) is the subject of Bill Madden's 'Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball'
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 veteran’s 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. Unique releases from Josh Wilker and pitcher-turned-penman Dirk Hayhurst give us some 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 non-drafted 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
The only baseball title included in Publishers Weekly’s Top 100 list, “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 hoped to do, and does, was humanize him. Without excusing the drinking, the womanizing, the rudeness, 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
If life in the minor leagues looks at all glamorous from where you sit, Dirk Hayhurst would like you to know it’s not that way for everyone. There may be a few high-round picks living large off of six- and seven-figure bonuses, 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 ’07 season into “The Bullpen Gospels.” Alternately poignant and hilarious, the book provides insider’s access to a minor league clubhouse. But as Hayhurst declares up front, the “book’s purpose is to entertain, not to name names.” It has been compared to a minor league “Ball Four,” though it isn’t a tell-all, and it was never intended to be. It is, however, so funny in parts you may have to stop reading until you catch your breath so you don’t miss out on anything.
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 for years, Josh Wilker found a box of memories in the form of baseball cards of the 1970s and early 80s. There was Yaz and Rickey and Rowland Office, just as he’d left them. Only now they were different somehow. Now they brought introspection, his childhood heroes 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 particular card into a memory of his life, from childhood through adolescence and 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
In “The Last Hero,” 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. Aaron quickly 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 off the field 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
There has rarely been a dull moment in New York since George Steinbrenner purchased the Yankees in 1973. Veteran sportswriter Bill Madden was there for most of the era, having started with the New York Daily News in 1978. Tape-recorded notes left by former team president Gabe Paul along with numerous interviews Madden conducted with other 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 “Home, Away,” is a major league pitcher who is separated from his son Rafe for nearly six years. From the field he watches strangers sharing special times with their kids while his is a thousand miles away. When a teenage Rafe is thrust back into Jason’s life, the southpaw is forced 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 spewed between Jason and his ex-wife is real, and often heart breaking. As is the hurt felt by Rafe, who was only given a slanted explanation of why his father walked out on him when he was eight.
7. Fifty-nine in ’84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball & the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had
By Edward Achorn
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 678.2 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 chronicles this incredible campaign in “Fifty-nine in ’84.”
8. Roger Maris: Baseball’s Reluctant Hero
By Tom Clavin and Danny Peary
Through the first 28 games of the 1961 season, Roger Maris had managed just 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, with too much of the early chapters spent on the slugger’s genealogy. But 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 professional 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 important or noteworthy documents there wasn’t nearly as much history to cover as there was by the time he finished. Sullivan’s fourth volume, “Final Innings,” 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 of the game’s past. 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.
For fans who want to learn more about new sabermetric statistics, Lee Panas’ “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. Panas concludes with a chapter on total player contribution, where he breaks down stats like win shares and wins above replacement (WAR). 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.