For the Love of the Game

Ron Berger —

I share Mark Richardson’s interest in nonfiction baseball books (see Wise Guys, February 17, 2016) and thought I’d take the opportunity to also share a few that I’ve read over the last 14 years. But first some personal background.

My bonding with baseball began in 1959, when I was eight years old. The year before the Brooklyn Dodgers had moved to my hometown of Los Angeles, and in 1959 the L.A. Dodgers won the World Series. They also won the Series in 1963 and 1965, and the National League pennant in 1966.

When I was a youth, games were rarely televised. But it was magic listening to the radio, especially because the L.A. announcer was Vin Scully, a Hall of Fame broadcaster who was (and still is) one of the best in the entire history of the game.

During that time left-handed Sandy Koufax was arguably the most dominant pitcher in baseball, winning an incredible 25 games (with a 1.88 ERA) in 1963, 26 games (2.04 ERA) in 1965, and 27 games (1.73 ERA) in 1966, until his career was stopped short because of an arm injury. For me, as someone of Jewish heritage, Koufax had the added appeal of being Jewish, and given the paucity of Jewish players, that was something special to me.

At the time, my idea of an ideal game was one in which shortstop Maury Wills would draw a walk, steal second and third base, and score on a sacrifice fly, while Koufax pitched a complete game shutout and the Dodgers won 1-0. You can have your homerun derby; I’ll take a pitcher’s duel any day.

As a young boy the only books I really enjoyed were Hardy Boys mysteries and baseball biographies. For most of my adult life, however, I did not read baseball books. But things changed in 2002 when Jane Leavy published Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy. Here is the publisher’s description of the book:

Koufax“In an era when too many heroes have been toppled from too many pedestals, Sandy Koufax stands apart and alone, a legend who declined his own celebrity. As a pitcher, he was sublime, the ace of baseball lore. As a human being, he aspired to be the one thing his talent and his fame wouldn’t allow: a regular guy… In Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy … Jane Leavy … vividly re-creat[es] the Koufax era, when presidents were believed and pitchers aspired to go the distance.”

“He was only a teenager when Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley proclaimed him ‘the Great Jewish Hope’ of the franchise. But it wasn’t until long after the team had abandoned Brooklyn that the man became the myth. Old-fashioned in his willingness to play when he was injured and in his acute sense of responsibility to his team, Koufax answered to an authority higher than manager Walter Alston. When he refused to pitch the opening game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, he inadvertently made himself a religious icon and an irrevocably public figure. A year later, he was gone—done with baseball at age thirty. No other sports hero had retired so young, so well, or so completely.”

Koufax had started his career with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1955, and I always had some sympathy for the Brooklyn fans who had lost their beloved team. I was thus intrigued to read Thomas Oliphant’s Praying for Gil Hodges: A Memoir of the 1955 World Series and One Family’s Love of the Brooklyn Dodgers when it was published in 2005. Especially appealing was Oliphant’s use of one game to tell his memoir of family and community.

HodgesPraying for Gil Hodges is built around a detailed reconstruction of the seventh game of the 1955 World Series… On a sunny, breezy October afternoon, something happened in New York City that had never happened before and never would again: the Brooklyn Dodgers won the world championship of baseball… Until that afternoon … the Dodgers … [had] lost the World Series to the New York Yankees five times and lost the National League pennant on the final day of the season three times…”

“Pitch by pitch and inning by inning, Thomas Oliphant re-creates a relentless melodrama that shows this final game in its true glory. As we move through the game, he builds a remarkable history of the hapless ‘Bums,’ exploring the Dodgers’ status as a national team, based on their fabled history of near-triumphs and disasters that made them classic underdogs. He weaves into this brilliant recounting a winning memoir of his own family’s story and their time together on that fateful day that the final game was played.”

33rdHaving read this book with a one-game narrative format, I was also intrigued to read Dan Barry’s Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game (2011), which was about a minor-league game between the Pawtucket Red Sox and Rochester Red Wings.

“On April 18, 1981 … what began as a modestly attended minor-league game between the Pawtucket Red Sox and the Rochester Red Wings became not only the longest ever played in baseball history, but something else entirely. The first pitch was thrown after dusk on Holy Saturday, and for the next eight hours the night seemed to suspend its participants between their collective pasts and futures, between their collective sorrows and joys—the ballplayers; the umpires; Pawtucket’s ejected manager, peering through a hole in the backstop; the sportswriters and broadcasters; a few stalwart fans shivering in the cold…”

“Dan Barry has written a lyrical meditation on small-town lives, minor-league dreams, and the elements of time and community that conspired one fateful night to produce a baseball game seemingly without end. Bottom of the 33rd captures the sport’s essence: the purity of purpose, the crazy adherence to rules, the commitment of both players and fans … [as well as] the myriad lives held in the night’s unrelenting grip. Consider, for instance, the team owner determined to revivify a decrepit stadium, built atop a swampy bog, or the batboy approaching manhood, nervous and earnest, or the umpire with a new family and a new home, or the wives watching or waiting up, listening to a radio broadcast slip into giddy exhaustion. Consider the small city of Pawtucket itself, its ghosts and relics, and the players, two destined for the Hall of Fame (Cal Ripken and Wade Boggs), a few to play only briefly or forgettably in the big leagues, and the many stuck in minor-league purgatory, duty bound and loyal to the game.”

GardenMark’s two reviews focused on baseball history, and I’d like to add a few more of this genre, including John Thorn’s Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game (2011).

“Who really invented baseball? … Meet Daniel Lucius Adams, William Rufus Wheaton, and other fascinating figures buried beneath the falsehoods that have accrued around baseball’s origins… Baseball in the Garden of Eden draws on original research to tell how the game evolved from other bat-and-ball games and gradually supplanted them, how the New York game came to dominate other variants, and how gambling and secret professionalism promoted and plagued the game. From a religious society’s plot to anoint Abner Doubleday as baseball’s progenitor to a set of scoundrels and scandals far more pervasive than the Black Sox fix of 1919 … even the most expert baseball fan will learn something new with almost every page.”

EmpireAnother book on baseball history that has a rather unique focus is Robert Elias’s The Empire Strikes Out: How Baseball Sold U.S. Foreign Policy and Promoted the American Way Abroad (2010), which is an account of U.S. foreign policy through the eyes of baseball.

“Is the face of American baseball throughout the world that of goodwill ambassador or ugly American? Has baseball crafted its own image or instead been at the mercy of broader forces shaping our society and the globe? The Empire Strikes Out gives us the sweeping story of how baseball and America are intertwined in the export of ‘the American way.’”

“From the Civil War to George W. Bush and the Iraq War, we see baseball’s role in developing the American empire, first at home and then beyond our shores. And from Albert Spalding and baseball’s first World Tour to Bud Selig and the World Baseball Classic, we witness the globalization of America’s national pastime and baseball’s role in spreading the American dream… Elia assesses the effects of this relationship both on our foreign policies and on the sport itself and asks whether baseball can play a positive role or rather only reinforce America’s dominance around the globe.”

SatchelLarry Tye’s Satchel: The Life and Times of An American Legend (2009) is both a biography of one of baseball’s most colorful figures and a history of the Negro Leagues and baseball’s eventual racial integration.

“Leroy ‘Satchel’ Paige … is that rare American icon who … [was an] athlete, showman, philosopher, and boundary breaker… [Satchel] is the stirring account of the child born to a poor Alabama washerwoman, the boy who earned his nickname from his enterprising work as a railroad porter, and the young man who took up baseball on the streets and in reform school before becoming the superstar hurler of the Negro Leagues.”

JuicingLastly, Howard Bryant’s Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power, and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball (2005) is a compelling account of baseball’s more recent steroid era.

“In Juicing the Game … Howard Bryant offers … [a] big-picture look at the insidious manner in which performance-enhancing drugs infested baseball as the game’s leaders stood idly by, reaping the rewards… Combining hard-hitting investigative journalism with interviews with baseball heavyweights such as Jason Giambi, Commissioner Bud Selig, union head Donald Fehr, and Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson among many others, Juicing the Game is the definitive book on both the steroid scandal and the era it has irreversibly tainted.”

Postscript: The L.A. Dodgers have not won a World Series since 1988. I’m still waiting for them to win one more.



One thought on “For the Love of the Game

  1. Absolutely wonderful, Ron. I have all of these books and have read all but “The Bottom of the 33rd” and “The Empire Strikes Out,” which I hope to get to very soon. While many great pitchers have come and gone since 1966, Koufax remains the best I’ve ever seen. In 1965, much to this Cub fan’s chagrin, Sandy pitched a perfect game against us, and the amazing thing is that the Cubs’ Bob Hendley surrendered only one hit to the Dodgers. And, as you so aptly point out, the Dodgers “rallies” being what they were, that one hit in the game had no connection to the scoring. The Dodgers won 1-0 on an unearned run. Karma reared it’s head, though, five days later when Hendley beat Koufax 2-1.

    I’ve just read two books that might interest you, “Gil Hodges,” by Tom Clavin and Danny Peary, and “Hank Greenberg: Hero of Heroes,” by John Rosengren, which details Greenberg’s life and the prejudices he endured as the first Jewish player of star stature in the major leagues.

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