Sunday, October 08, 2006

Triple Book Review!

I read books, and some of them are even the kind that you read straight through rather than choosing what actions the protagonists should take and then flipping to a page that describes the result. Most of the baseball books I read are like that, and I thought I'd take this opportunity to review some of them. Adjust your book-buying behavior accordingly.

First up is The Last Nine Innings by Charles Euchner, a book I read shortly before the season started and should have reviewed a really long time ago. It has an interesting format, using incidents from game 7 of the 2001 World's Series of Base Ball as launching points for a series of topics, some of which I even remember. Catching, for instance. There was an enlightening discussion of catching. Euchner deserves credit for what I remember being an even-handed account of the ever more tiresome dispute between the Moneyball idiots and the anti-Moneyball idiots. Although there were some glaring factual errors ("Orlando Cabrera of the St. Louis Cardinals" is mentioned as a better defensive shortstop than Derek Jeter, which is half right), The Last Nine Innings proved to be a fine read and -- if your memory is as bad as mine -- an enjoyable memory-jogger. I'd forgotten all about Jay Bell, for instance, and there he is! Recommended for fans of catching and of Jay Bell.


Above: Jay Bell congratulates Tony Womack, just as he would congratulate Charles Euchler if the opportunity arose. "Great job, Charles!"

Another book I read, and keep in mind that the quality of the transitions around here pretty accurately reflect what you paid for them, is Don't Look Back: Satchel Paige in the Shadows of Baseball by Mark Ribowsky. Now, Paige is one of the most interesting men who ever lived, and it's got to be close to impossible to write an uninteresting account of his life. Don't Look Back is no exception, and even at its sloggiest and despite Ribowski's sometimes head-slappingly pretentious prose, I plowed through it, eager to learn of the next leg of Satchel's journeys.

Ribowski does a fine job of filling in the cast of characters around Paige, particularly the less than legitimate black businessmen whose money and civic pride kept the Negro Leagues in business and Satchell -- in between his trips to North Dakota, the Dominican Republic, and elsewhere -- employed. Gus Greenlee, for instance -- the Pittsburgh numbers boss who delighted in being called "Big Red," as it reflected both his imposing stature and his mixed heritage -- receives a thorough and even poignant treatment.

But this underscores the fundamental problem with the book: not enough Satchel. It's probably not Ribowski's fault. He does (as far as I can tell) a great deal of original research, but at the end of the day, we're left with a clearer picture of Greenlee and others than we are of Paige. Paige was a private man who was ashamed of his origins and used to the endless slights that went with his race and environment. He didn't often show his true self and attained a truly impressive celebrity behind a well-developed character. Ribowski talks less about Paige than he does about America's view of Paige, and Satchel's remarkable fame is something that baseball fans of my vintage could stand to be reminded of.

Finally, we come to the most comment-worthy of my recent baseball readings, Those Damn Yankees by Dean Chadwin. I almost didn't pick this book up. A whole book about how much the Yankees suck? Well, I hate the Yankees a lot, but I'm not proud of it, and it doesn't seem to be a topic that would bring out the best in a writer. "Jeters a bich and the Spaknees spend to much money lol Tigers!" Sure, Jeters a bich and the Yaknees do spend too much money and I certainly loled when the Tigers won, but that's the kind of thing to be anonymously proclaimed on message boards, not committed to actual paper with a real publisher who compiled it in a volume that's available at a steep discount at my local independent bookseller.

But then I saw a compelling reason to buy it. At the top of the cover, above a fat guy in sunglasses and an Uncle Sam hat sticking out the sunroof of a pinstriped car, I saw this: "'I recommend Those Damn Yankees. It reveals Giuliani as the self-serving political manipulator that he is.' - Mayor Edward Koch." A question mark appeared above my head, only the first of many that the book would produce.

Let me get this out of the way first: Those Damn Yankees is completely fucking crazy. Dean Chadwin sees the Yankees as an embodiment and element of everything he hates. Republicans, white people, George Will, every newspaper writer that ever lived, and Giuliani -- especially Giuliani. And if he takes a shot at one of these annoyances, he considers them all hurt. When Steinbrenner does something shady, Chadwick points it out and yells, "take that, Giuliani you bastard!"

I've never seen baseball analyzed in Chadwick's manner. It's like a Bill Simmons column ghostwritten by Howard Zinn or Centerfield by System of a Down. And it's a good thing TDY is as unfocused as it, as its unorganized listing of grievances is what makes it entertaining. In one section, Chadwick complains about the "bleacher creatures" at Yankees stadium, their rowdiness and eagerness to call opposing players "fags." Later, he rails against the police presence at the Stadium and specifically around the bleachers. Uneducated, heteronormative fans or jackbooted fascist thugs -- they both make being a Yanks fan miserable. Everything is a cause for complaint. Why are there so many white people at Camden Yards? Why does a rich guy own the team? Why aren't there any Muslim players? Chadwick does not offer an explanation for that last "issue," but I bet white guys in nice suits have something to do with it.

It's a hell of a read. Chadwick is a literate baseball fan, a very good writer, a leftist, and a hater of all things Yankee; if you've ever wondered what an alternate dimension Stephen Goldman would sound like, here he is. His style of argument is so unhinged that he should start a blog. Ever thought about why Willie Mays drew fewer walks than Mickey Mantle. Racist umpires! By subconsciously favoring Mantle, umpires saw to it that "many experts" (by which he probably means SABR, whose "membership is overwhelmingly Caucasian and male, with a high percentage Catholic") would consider Mantle to be greater player, and all because of racism. This is an ideal condensation of Chadwick's 273 pages of ranting: an imaginary problem is tackled by assuming something ridiculous (in this case, that Mays and Mantle are, other than skin color, exactly identical players) and explained by assuming the absolute worst about any authority figures.

That's not to say that TDY is without its faults. When Chadwick stops complaining about stuff that drives him and only him nuts and ventures into stuff that drives lots of people nuts, you might as well be reading any other whiny "Why Baseball is Doomed" column. We all benefit from a little leeway when it comes to bad predictions, but it's hard not to smirk when Chadwick laments that Kevin Brown's contract with the Dodgers marked the end of competitive balance or that teams like the A's and Twins, with nine playoff appearances between them since TDY's 1999 publication, are doomed to bottom-feeding and might as well be relegated.

Those Damn Yankees seems to have made little impression on the baseball world, and that's a shame. Go to your local bookstore, and you'll find eight or nine rah-rah franchise histories, some uninteresting autobiographies, Rob Neyer's latest lukewarm excretions, and at least one Baseball Prospectus collaboration with an insulting subtitle. What you won't find is anything as original, as elegantly written, or as spellbinding as Chadwick's literary catharsis.

6 comments:

El Gran Color Naranja said...

"This is an ideal condensation of Chadwick's 273 pages of ranting: an imaginary problem is tackled by assuming something ridiculous (in this case, that Mays and Mantle are, other than skin color, exactly identical players) and explained by assuming the absolute worst about any authority figures.

That's not to say that TDY is without its faults."

Now that's a tranistion. I expected the next sentence to read "Reading TDY will cause cancer."

Eric said...

Sorry to post an off-topic comment, but I'm waiting for my favorite Nats bloggers to discuss how Joe Torre's apparently imminent firing affects our managerial possibilities... Is there any chance we could get Torre? Should we want him? I imagine you're gathering your thoughts...

Ryan said...

I like the ranting. At least, the original ranting, the stuff I never would have thought to rant about. But then again, I'm the kind of guy who reads Chick Tracts for fun.

Managers: I'm planning on saying something about it, but at the rate I'm going, I won't get around to it until long after they've hired someone.

Joltin Joe Orsulak said...

Man, that Chick thing is awesome. I always knew that rock and roll was the devil's music, but I never knew how literally! That "Lou Siffer" is almost as evil as Allen Klein and Steve Albini put together.

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