On Wednesday I highlight noteworthy new sports books, with links to reviews, interviews and other information about the subject and/or author.
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As Grantland contributor Bryan Curtis’ recent sweeping survey of baseball bibliography shows, there’s a baseball book for just about everybody.
But like Abraham Lincoln was to the massive Civil War field of study, volumes and volumes of baseball books have been written to cater to the baby boom generation of readers, and fans.
Born in the 1950s and coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s, baby boomers occupy the sweet spot for the baseball genre. As Curtis explains:
“When ideas fail, baseball books drift back to the same place where they’ve been anchored for two decades: the 1950s. Baseball books are instant replay for baby boomers. ‘There has to be a book every year about Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Ted Williams, or some combination thereof,’ said Robert Weintraub, author of The Victory Season, which was published last year. ‘I’m guilty of that myself.’
“The ’50s is farmland already tilled by literary HOFers like David Halberstam and Roger Kahn, by Jane Leavy and Richard Ben Cramer. Each go-round leaves fewer available plots. Leavy did Mantle in 2010. James S. Hirsch did Mays the same year. So it was inevitable that in 2013, Allen Barra would do them both, in the dual biography Mickey and Willie. If an author finds his mandate getting too small, he compensates by going big. Last year, Ben Bradlee Jr.’s biography of Ted Williams came in at a whopping 784 pages.
“There’s a funny thing about the boomers trudging to the shelves. The overfamiliarity of the old ballplayers isn’t a turnoff; it’s the sell. ‘What you want if you’re a reader is to pull back a curtain on a time you remember well,’ explained literary agent David Black.”
The most current offerings continue to reflect this range of chronology, from the so-called “Golden Age” of baseball that climaxed in the 1950s to the mid-1970s. The appeal of this time frame for boomers is obvious: The inheritance of memories from their fathers to their own fan experiences as young adults, right before baseball free agency shattered much of the nostalgia of their youth.
Bill Madden, a sportswriter for the New York Daily News, taps into the former with “1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever.”
(Here’s an excerpt focused on racially-oriented sparring between Jackie Robinson and Dick Young, the incorrigible Daily News sportswriter.)
As the 1954 season dawned, Willie Mays and Larry Doby were becoming the first black superstars in baseball for purely baseball reasons, as opposed to the groundbreaking role played by Robinson. That year, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that outlawed segregation in public schools. In the fall, Mays made the breathtaking catch in deep, deep center in the Polo Grounds during the World Series, as his Giants defeated Doby’s Cleveland Indians.
It was the first World Series, in fact, in which black players were in uniform for both teams.
Madden tries to show how baseball was ahead of the social curve as more integration fights loomed. In this Q and A with the Indiana Sports Journalism Center, Madden — who spoke to many of his surviving subjects, admittedly childhood heroes — said he also wanted to write the book because he was hoping to break new ground:
“Nobody’s ever written about this season, which was another impetus for me to push my agent to get somebody to buy this book, because it needed to be written, in my opinion.”
A review on seamheads.com makes a common complaint about books like this, and that Curtis alludes to — it lacked “a better sense of how life was in the 1950s by touching on more non-baseball events.” More reviews from MLB.com, and Pop Matters, which also concludes that Madden’s book “stands as a missed opportunity to tell a larger, more instructive story.”
Fast forward a couple of decades to the focal point of journalist Dan Epstein’s “Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Summer of ‘76.”
The author of the 2012 book “Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ‘70s,” Epstein continues the story as America celebrated its bicentennial. These were my high school days, and the stories here have brought back very powerful memories for me.
Against the backdrop of the button-down dynasty of the Cincinnati Reds’ Big Red Machine, the just-ended dynasty of the hairy, brawling Oakland A’s, and the towering figures of Thurman Munson, Mike Schmidt and Mark Fidrych, Epstein tries to evoke the spirit of the sport across the larger American society, especially pop culture.
Some of the reviews are mixed, but always include the large dollops of zaniness that Epstein heaps out, on page after anecdote-filled page. As Chris Vognar notes in The Dallas Morning News, Epstein expertly fleshes out the rollicking promotions of Bill Veeck, Charlie Finley, Ted Turner and other owners unafraid — or perhaps just totally shameless — about finding new ways to lure fans to the ballpark:
“My favorite: Headlock and Wedlock Day, for which Turner’s Atlanta Braves hosted a group wedding ceremony and a wrestling exhibition. What a bargain.”
(Has it really been 35 years since Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park? The cultural scourge of my youth blown all to hell. I was ecstatic. How time flies.)
The business of baseball was about to change big-time, with big salaries and contentious labor disputes marring the next two decades. Epstein, who’s in his late 40s, wants readers of his generation to remember that time fondly. The age of big money has brought with it more recent battles over performance-enhancing drugs, which also seems to be pitting baby boom writers against bloggers, especially over Hall of Fame induction.
In an interview with The Sporting News, Epstein is being more than nostalgiac talking about the wacky owners of the ’70s. He’s rueful that baseball may have shed the last vestiges of its soul:
“All of those men were, for better or worse, as much or more a part of their team’s identity as the players themselves, and I can’t think of any owner in today’s game who has anywhere near the same kind of charisma, or who has the same ability to grab headlines or turn the game on its head. Sadly, the economics and the increasing corporatization of major league baseball in the 21st century make it extremely unlikely that we’ll ever see those kind of maverick owners in the game again.”