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287/366 Wowie! Zowee! Zounds! Stepped off the red-eye … bleary-eyed … teary-eyed … rub, rub, rrrrrrrrub, finally clear-eyed … to see Tom Wolfe’s new book as hidden as any day-glo, rave-orange, toilet cleanser-blue book could be on a newsstand shelf — a week before its official debut. Is this a mistake? An oversight? A hyuk hyuk hyuk miracle? Don’t care. On the first off day of the NLCS, I know how I’ll spend my evening … reading … flip … about Miami … flip … and billionaire art collectors … flip … as only the colorful author in the colorless suit can write … flip! flip! flip! (Taken with Instagram)

287/366 Wowie! Zowee! Zounds! Stepped off the red-eye … bleary-eyed … teary-eyed … rub, rub, rrrrrrrrub, finally clear-eyed … to see Tom Wolfe’s new book as hidden as any day-glo, rave-orange, toilet cleanser-blue book could be on a newsstand shelf — a week before its official debut. Is this a mistake? An oversight? A hyuk hyuk hyuk miracle? Don’t care. On the first off day of the NLCS, I know how I’ll spend my evening … reading … flip … about Miami … flip … and billionaire art collectors … flip … as only the colorful author in the colorless suit can write … flip! flip! flip! (Taken with Instagram)

Filed under books tom wolfe nlcs project 365+

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justamanandhisblog asked: I just added 38 baseball-related books to my Amazon wish list, but I wonder if you have any recommendations for must-reads. I want a more sophisticated understanding of the game. Any guidance would be greatly appreciated. Sorry, I know this is a busy time of year for you. Keep up the good work.

Only 38? I have scores of suggestions shelved and stacked all around my office here, from the history of “Casey at the Bat” (The Night Casey was Born) to fiction (The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings) to college ball (The Road to Omaha) to the big, important books (The Echoing Green). I recently read Jane Leavy’s Mickey Mantle biography (The Last Boy) and George Vecsey’s excellent Stan Musial bio in order, and the comparison between the two players was … striking.

There’s a literal library of quality baseball books out there, and more that I can see from my seat here that I hope to read this winter. Here’s a list of nine (good baseball number) must-reads from a variety of genres, but mostly geared toward your goal to have a deeper understanding of the game:

Weaver on Strategy by Earl Weaver and Terry Pluto. This book came up at the press conference with new Cardinals coach Mike Matheny. I dusted it off again for a refresher. It contains such no-duh comments as “It’s easier to find four good starters than five,” such inside baseball thanks as “I owe a lot to George Kissell” (don’t we all?), and such insight as “The key step for an infielder is the first one — left or right — but before the ball is hit.”

Lords of the Realm by John Helyar. A dense and wonderful book on the business of baseball that altered my view of the majors when I read it in college and inspired many term papers.

The Great American Novel by Philip Roth. A complete and wonderful romp through a fictional baseball league with a fictional team that never gets to play at home. Here’s a little tidbit: This book has a permanent place in my luggage. It has gone with me on every road trip I’ve taken as a sportswriter. I don’t have a good reason why except it just has.

The Soul of Baseball by Joe Posnanski. A literary road trip with Buck O’Neil told lovingly by the former Kansas City Star columnist and now star for Sports Illustrated. This is a love letter to baseball.

The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty by Buster Olney. The best book by a beat writer I’ve read in the past decade. It’s an inside look at the team we all know well from its October ownership, but it offers new details, new anecdotes and new insight into how the Yankees thrived and how they crumbled.

The Iowa Baseball Confederacy by W. P. Kinsella. Shoeless Joe, which became the template for “Field of Dreams,” is Kinsella’s more famous baseball book, but IBC is the better baseball book. Like Posnanski’s non-fiction book, this novel explores the romance of the game and its timeliness. Literally. The story is built around a 2,600-inning game.

Dollar Sign on the Muscle by Kevin Kerrane. This is a difficult book to find, but it’s worth the search. Kerrane takes the reader inside the world of the baseball scout, offering a whole chapter on the lingo of scouting and profiles on individual scouts as they hunt for the next great talent.

The Numbers Game by Alan Schwarz. It would be easy to take the above book and suggest you contrast it with Moneyball. And that’s worth doing. Schwarz’s book isn’t Moneyball, but it does explain the rise of “Moneyball” power by exploring the history of the box score, the authors of early stats, and the invention of the new numbers that define baseball today.

Nine Innings by Daniel Okrent. If deeper understanding was the goal then Weaver’s book offers a deeper understanding of the game’s mechanics, Helyar’s book gives a deeper understanding of the business of baseball, Kerrane’s a deeper understanding of scouting, Schwarz’s a deeper understanding of the numbers, Olney’s a deeper understanding of a team and modern coverage, and Posnanski’s and Kinsella’s a deeper understanding of the game’s heart and appeal. Okrent’s brings it all together. I read this book in junior high and it flipped by view of the game. I watched and read baseball smarter — perhaps even played it smarter — because of this book. Okrent uses one game — Brewers vs. Baltimore on June 10, 1982 — to illuminate how the game is played, how a team is built, how a stadium runs, and how players interact. For example, near the middle of the book (and the game), Okrent offers a profile of Ted Simmons, the Brewers’ catcher, and who helped him learn to call a game as a young player:

Simmons found it hard to explain the actual techniques of calling a game he learned from Gibson; despite his articulateness, and his general willingness to talk, he saw baseball as something that did not reveal itself, except to participants. “It’s so subtle,” he said, “and so beautiful. You’ve really got to be out there to understand ir or to appreciate how many different things are going on.”

Gibson, of course, is Bob Gibson, the Cardinals’ greatest pitcher. Despite Simmons’ assertion that baseball “reveals itself” only to players, Okrent’s reporting and writing takes the reader as far as possible without lacing up cleats. He reveals the game.

Start with Okrent and see where it takes you next.

Hope that helps.


Filed under baseball books fiction iowa baseball confederacy philip roth

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It's (read a) Banned Book Week

"There must be something in books, things we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing."

— Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

I doubt when schools pulled Bradbury’s classic off the shelf and removed it from reading lists because it had the words “hell” and “God damn” and featured a Bible being vandalized that they bothered to, you know, read the book and recognize their irony. Or, ahem, get to the end where the Bible plays a role in the resolution. Each year Banned Book Week reminds us that the easily offended are strangely powerful.

Look at the list of Banned Books on American Library Association’s site and one thing should stand out: most of them are classics. These aren’t all trash novels and dime-store paperbacks — or “schlock” as my English teacher used to call them — getting ripped off shelves or removed from backpacks. These are some of the best books our language has to offer. One of my favorites on the list is The Lord of the Flies, and that’s partially because William Golding’s story unnerved me, forced me to face images and events I didn’t want to read, and made me better and more understanding for it. There is indeed something in books. There is fear, there is loathing, there is sacrilege, there are stories to disturb, images that disgust and words that offend. It is only by reading about what is wrong, that better appreciate what is right. That is why these books are good. That is why they are classics. That is why they are important. 

As Bradbury writes, there is something in books. There is power.

And that really is why they are banned.

What banned book is your favorite?

Filed under books fahrenheit 451 banned books week the lord of the flies

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Capturing "The Art of Fielding"

The literary lightning bolt of the now is Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, a first novel that Jonathan Franzen, a writer who knows a little bit about the buzz generated by big important books, calls “complete and consuming.”

It also happens to be about baseball.

A review copy of Harbach’s book found its way to the clubhouse a month or so ago, and I picked hesitantly through its pages before diving in completely a week or so ago. The story is as much about a small college and a mid-life romantic awakening and fading youth as it is about baseball, but baseball offers the narrative backbone. Failure is a central theme of the book, as it is the central challenge of the game. The book has a languid pace that comforts you as it grabs you and then rewards you with spikes of captivating moments, not unlike any game of baseball.

In this interview with Paris Review that’s linked above (hat tip to mightflynn for posting from it), Harbach describes why fielding, and not hitting, became the focus of his book and the skill of its main character, Henry Skrimshander:

"I certainly think that watching a good infielder is one of the most beautiful things in sports. You have to be so graceful and economical to field well, and there’s something lovely about the patience and prevailing calm that’s required to wait, and wait, and wait, and then explode into action at just the right moment."

Amen. As Harbach’s description here hints, the attention he gives fielding plays in his book — especially as Skrimshander descends into the abyss of the yips — is some of the best baseball writing in a novel in recent memory. Skrimshander going into the hole to snatch a grounder isn’t the same as The Natural clubbing a homer, but Harbach infuses it with the same drama.

Harbach may only be talking about fielding, but within his explanation above he captures why baseball captivates me. The game is about a “prevailing calm” that does require a fan “to wait, and wait, and wait” until the action explodes. I’ve always called it baseball’s sustained tension. It’s intoxicating. This could be the pitch that something remarkable happens. No. Well, this one could be. No. Well, this one … And then it does, and you realize all of the things that were happening beneath the calm (the middle infielders moving, the runner taking a lead, the first baseman sneaking behind him and opening a hole for the hitter, the pitcher spying a pinch hitter grabbing a bat) and the action is over in a blink of an eye, and it’s beautiful. Baseball lulls you and misleads you and then rewards you like no other game. And that’s where The Art of Fielding succeeds: co-opting the pace of a baseball game and building a plot that has a “prevailing calm” but this churning of events and positioning of characters beneath the surface. That draws a reader in before, like a shortstop’s throw, the minor climaxes explodes out of the writer’s hand. It’s at these rewarding moments when Skrimshander doubts his arm or another player confronts his failure that you realize Harbach’s novel isn’t another book about baseball, it is baseball as a book.


Filed under books baseball the art of fielding

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A call to arms for book publishers

In this morning’s Chicago Tribune, Aaron Gilbreath, a clerk at the magnificent Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., writes that it’s time for the publishing industry to “fight dirty,” or at least take up the same weapons of mass distraction that the Kindle and other digital devices have: advertising. Gilbreath makes the case that publishers should, ahem, steal a page from commercials from Kindle and sell the benefits of a book, “like the joys of ‘curling up with a book,’ the satisfaction of seeing your library on a shelf in your bedroom — the years of your life marked by rows of colorful spines, the pages covered with marginalia.”

The book is endangered. Only a slogan can save it.

Filed under books bibliophile newspapers