How I Spent My Winter Vacation
Even though now it’s pretty much possible to have baseball all year long, with satellite TV and the internet bringing the Fall League, the Caribbean League, the Australian League, etc. right into your home, I still prefer to take a break between the World Series and spring training. One of the things I love most about the game is the way the arc of the season aligns with the passage of the seasons. This winter was so unseasonably warm where I live, I don’t think I would have known it was winter without the absence of baseball games on TV and box scores in the morning paper. But I certainly don’t forget about the game in the winter, as evidenced by a good portion of my reading list that got me through the short days and long nights. I realize that none of these are that new, as I acquire books at roughly 3 times the rate that I am able to read them, but if you’re looking for some books on baseball, here’s my thoughts on a few.
“Stan Musial: An American Life” by George Vecsey is the most recent title, and the one I had most looked forward to reading. In the holy trinity of World War II era ballplayers, Musial never received the ink that DiMaggio and Williams did, while putting up numbers every bit their equal. This biography seeks to fill in the blanks about “The Man” and does so with a very thorough portrait of his life. My one complaint was in the writing style; for me, the best biographies read almost like novels, with a strong narrative that steers you through the subject’s life. Vescey presents this more in the style of sports reporting, which of course is what he does.
Dizzy Dean has a starring role (what else would he have?) in two of the other books on my list. “The Gashouse Gang” by John Heiderney uses Dizzy and the 1934 Cardinals to reflect the characteristics and values of depression era America. In “Satch, Dizzy and Rapid Robert”, Timothy M. Gay reminds us of the long history of interracial barnstorming that took place in the years before Jackie Robinson. Both are excellent reads and demonstrate vividly the prominent role that baseball held in American society at that time. It also occurred to me while reading Mr. Gay’s book that Satchel Paige, Dizzy Dean and Bob Feller were every bit about making every last dollar they could as we accuse today’s players of being. It’s just that it’s much easier to forgive when it’s about actually making a living wage instead of buying the 2nd beach house and the 5th luxury automobile.
The one I would recommend most highly is “The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron,” by Howard Bryant. So often taking a back seat, to Babe Ruth as home run hitter, to Willie Mays as best player of his era, to Jackie Robinson as racial pioneer, this book seeks to make the world understand all that Henry Aaron had to overcome and all that he accomplished. It is not a study in hero worship by any means; Bryant details the shortcomings and poor decisions that contributed over the years to the public’s misperceptions about the real Aaron. Overall though, the portrait is one of character and perseverance and a true American legend that should be celebrated even by those who are not fans of the game.
Don’t read? I also checked out “The Franchise”, Showtime’s reality series that followed the San Francisco Giants during the 2011 season. (Again, like with the books, I’m late with everything, I caught it on DVD) It was a good choice of a team, as probably no other boasts a comparable cast of characters, and the behind the scenes access from spring training until September was fascinating. After the scene where rookie Brandon Belt is told that he has made the team, and he has to take a couple of minutes in Bochy’s office to cry and compose himself, I think I will be a fan of that young man for his entire career. What I took away from it more than anything is that with all the money and the hype and things like Brian Wilson’s beard, it’s easy to forget that what these guys are first and foremost are ballplayers. They want to win and they want to be the best that they can be. Even the case of Barry Zito, who can easily be viewed as the poster boy of overpriced contracts, is brought into perspective. As the cameras follow him from injury rehab to comeback to disappointment and further injury, you can see the emotional pain that his inability to be the pitcher he still believes he can be causes him. He is not laughing all the way to the bank. I highly recommend it as a peek behind the curtain of the modern game. I understand that Season 2 will follow Ozzie and the new-look Miami Marlins. Now that should be entertaining ;)
And how about Moneyball? Technically, I saw it before the end of last season, but I’ve also watched it at least twice on DVD over the winter. I enjoyed the book, but I admit when I heard they were going to make it into a movie my first thought was why? And then, how? But it works, and it works very well. Even after repeated viewings, I’m still not sure why it does, but it does. Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, all the acting is dead –on. Maybe it’s the David versus Goliath story, the story of unrealized potential and redemption, the guy who turns down the big money to try to win it all right where he is. As Billy Beane says in the movie though, unless we win the last game of the year we won’t be a success. It’s 2012, he‘s still there and he still hasn’t won that last game. But the movie still works. Check it out.
"People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring." Rogers Hornsby
By The Church of Baseball