Mark Richardson —
My late fall/early winter reading has recently focused on classic fiction, Tolstoy and Mann, but I have found time to squeeze in three baseball biographies, and all three are worthy of note. Biographies have always been at the forefront of the game’s literature, but in recent years there seems to have been an explosion of life stories of the diamond’s greats. This is a welcome trend for those of us who love to read about the games and players of yesterday, many of whom even oldsters like myself are still too young to have seen play.
The first of the bios is called Lefty: An American Odyssey (2012) by Veronica Gomez and Lawrence Goldstone. The book is the story of the New York Yankees’ star lefthander, Vernon (Lefty) Gomez. The primary author, Veronica Gomez, is Lefty’s daughter, but this is no family memoir. Veronica is by profession a writer, and the narrative of the story is that of a professional biographer, not that of a daughter recollecting her life with daddy. There is no mention of the relationship until the epilogue, and no hint of familial fawning or prejudice. This is a straightforward telling of the life of one of the great pitchers of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. It is the story of a man who wagered with Babe Ruth, poked fun at Lou Gehrig, and roomed with Joe DiMaggio. His long career spanned the glory years of the Yankees through the better part of three decades, and his success was in large part contributory to the success of the great Bronx Bombers who dominated baseball for most of the 20-plus year period that his career covered.
Known almost as much for his witty sense of humor as for his blazing fastball and sharp-breaking curve, Gomez was a favorite of his teammates, opponents, fans, and especially, sportswriters. Always good for a quip, he was the perfect foil for the reticent DiMaggio, who, despite (or perhaps because of) his standing as baseball’s regal prince, remained aloof from all but a select few. Gomez acted as a shelterer for Joltin’ Joe, deflecting those who tried to get too close to the Yankee Clipper by jumping into the mix and striking up conversations with those who would pester Joe. He was Joe’s exact opposite, boisterous, fun-loving, and people-oriented, and DiMaggio appreciated Lefty like he did no other.
Gomez’s success on the mound resulted in his election to the Hall of Fame, and this stellar book about him is also Hall caliber.
The second of the biographies is Scooter: The Biography of Phil Rizzuto (2010) by Carlo DeVito. The diminutive Yankees’ shortstop also enjoyed a Hall of Fame career as one of several Italian-American players who were among the first players of Italian origin to break into the pastime. Along with fellow Yankees DiMaggio, Tony Lazzeri and Frankie Crosetti, Rizzuto opened the door to the sons of immigrants into the big leagues. Phil was a funny little guy who was terrified of bugs, any and all bugs. In a time when it was common for fielders to leave their gloves lying in the grass when an inning ended and they came back into the dugout, many were the instances when Rizzuto would return to the field, picked up his glove, and put it on his hand only to let out a blood-curdling scream and throw off the glove because an opposing player, knowing of his phobia, had placed a spider or a beetle into it. This became a recurrent joke on him, one which Rizzuto never got used to or came to expect. It caught him off guard time after time, leaving his teammates plenty of ammunition with which to tease him. He was very small in stature, barely over five feet tall and skinny (in fact, the start of his career was delayed for several seasons because the Yankees’ front office felt he was too small), and this fact, combined with his winning personality, caused his teammates to treat him like a beloved little brother. In 1950, he won the American League Most Valuable Player Award, and none less than the great Ted Williams proclaimed that the Yankees, with stars like DiMaggio, Henrich, Berra, Houk, Bauer, Skowran and so many others, owed their success to the steady play of the little shortstop Rizzuto.
After his playing career ended, Rizzuto made his way into the broadcast booth, where he remained for over thirty years, endearing himself to another generation or two of Yankee fans. He battled with fellow announcer Harry Caray over which of them originated the call, “Holy cow!” and he was famous for telling his broadcast partner that he was going to the restroom at the start of the seventh inning, only to sneak out of the ballpark to beat traffic on the causeway, leaving his partner to wrap up the game by himself. He famously did a voice-over on Meat Loaf’s rock-and-roll hit “Paradise By The Dashboard Light,” and then squirmed when he discovered that the song was about teenage sex. He tried to claim that he had no idea what the song was about, but Meat Loaf went on record saying that he had fully explained the song to Rizzuto prior to its taping. Eventually, the issue went away and Rizzuto remained as popular as ever.
The third of the three biographies, and I think the finest, is Hank Greenberg: Hero of Heroes (2013) by John Rosengren. Greenberg was one of the first Jewish players in the game, and the first to proclaim his religion with pride. There had been a handful of Jewish players prior to Greenberg’s appearance on the scene, but most had changed their names so as not to be identified with Judaism. Hankus Pankus, as he was nicknamed by announcer Ernie Harwell, blossomed into a slugger of rare ability, one who not only clubbed the long ball but hit for extremely high batting averages as well. He faced prejudice and taunting with courage and grace, and he was an early ally of Jackie Robinson when Jackie broke into the major leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking baseball’s despicable color line. Robinson expressed his appreciation for the encouragement given him by Greenberg, and the two shared a distasteful knowledge of what it was like to be different from the average ballplayer. In the midst of his outstanding career, Greenberg, like many other stars, was called into the military as World War II beckoned. He had served a stint in the Army and was just released when America entered WWII, and so, he went right back in again and remained for the next five years He returned to the Detroit Tigers just as their pennant winning season ended, and even though he hadn’t played ball in five years, he took up right where he left off, hitting a game-winning home run against the Chicago Cubs in the 1945 World Series. After his playing days, Greenberg took over as General Manager of the Cleveland Indians. His success in this role was not what it had been when he played. After standing with players throughout his career, working for better playing and living conditions, he became known as a penny pincher in the front office, and was accused of having no concern for the players. Most of the Indians took an anti-Greenberg stance, and he was soon relieved of his duties. But it will always be his outstanding playing career for which he is remembered, and a great career it was.
There are shelves and shelves of magnificent baseball biographies, and am looking forward to delving into them. These three were all great reads, and I thoroughly enjoyed each of them. I am going back to a few classics for the next few weeks, but Juan Marichal, Ernie Banks, and Billy Williams await me when I return to baseball. I may even be able to find a book or two about the World Series Champion Chicago Cubs!. I’ll let you know.