Thursday, November 27, 2008

When the Pilot Light is Out

Just a month removed from the Philadelphia Phillies' World Series celebration, the burner on the hot stove appears to have cooled off. All of the post-season awards have been announced, the Jake Peavy trade rumors have died down, and none of the major free agents seem to be in a hurry to find new homes. So, unless you're interested in more talk about the Mitchell report, or its spin-off, the Roger Clemens/Brian McNamee saga, then you need to look elsewhere for your winter baseball pick-me-up.

So, to help you with this, I bring you my recommendations for your off-season baseball-related reading. I'm going to break these down into a few categories, and hopefully my selections are far enough out of left field, so to speak, that they'll include a few that you might not have thought about reading otherwise.

Baseball Folk Tales

The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, by W.P. Kinsella
Often imitated but never duplicated, you really can't go wrong with W.P. Kinsella. I'm sure most everyone has heard of Kinsella's first novel and most famous work, Shoeless Joe, the book that inspired the movie Field of Dreams. But, in my opinion, his best work is his second novel. The Iowa Baseball Confederacy tells the story of Gideon Clarke, a man on a quest to prove, as his father had tried unsuccessfully before him, that the Chicago Cubs traveled to Onamata (formerly Big Inning), Iowa in 1908 for an exhibition game against the amateur all-stars from The Iowa Baseball Confederacy. Gideon is determined to set the record straight about a game that no one believes ever happened, one that was expected to be congenial and one-sided, but turned into a titanic struggle of over 2000 innings, played mostly in pouring rain over more than a month's time. Kinsella's knack for weaving fantastical tales that celebrate the spirituality of baseball, as well as life in the American midwest, is on full display here. As far as I'm concerned, there is no story that better captures the concept of baseball as a virtual fountain of youth, and celebrates its timeless nature that has the ability to make time stand still.

The Curious Case of Sidd Finch, by George Plimpton
The product of an April Fools' Day hoax perpetrated by Plimpton and Sports Illustrated, Sidd Finch was a fictional baseball player "discovered" by the New York Mets in the spring of 1985. An eccentric English-born buddhist monk, Finch has the ability to throw a baseball at the astounding rate of 168 mph, and is deciding whether to pursue a career as a major league pitcher or as a french horn player. The story is a humorous and pleasantly rambling narrative that is as wonderful as a baseball fairy tale can be.

Human Interest Autobiographies

Fear Strikes Out: The Jim Piersall Story, by Jim Piersall & Al Hirshberg
Jimmy Piersall was a promising outfielder for the Boston Red Sox in the 1950s, who is best known for his battles with bipolar disorder that resulted in a nervous breakdown during the 1952 season. Following completion of a seven-week program at Westboro State Hospital in Massachusetts, which caused him to miss most of that season, he returned in 1953 to finish 9th in American League MVP voting. This is a dramatic and heart-warming story of his courage and of the unconditional support he received from his manager, teammates, coaches, fans, and most importantly, his wife. The remainder of his career, which stretched from 1950 to 1967, and included stints with the Cleveland Indians, Washington Senators, New York Mets and Los Angeles/California Angels, was not without incident, but his autobiography provides an in-depth account of his experiences that raised public awareness of the realities of mental illness.

Behind the Mask: My Double Life in Baseball, by Dave Pallone with Alan Steinberg
To my knowledge, Dave Pallone is the only confirmed homosexual in major league baseball history. The twist to his story is that he was an umpire. Not just any umpire, though, but an umpire who landed his job in the majors when the union was on strike. He was also at the center of one of the most famous on-field conflicts in modern history, the incident that resulted in Pete Rose's 50-game suspension for shoving him. Coincidentally, Rose and Pallone were both dismissed from the game by A. Bartlett Giamatti. Pallone claims that his firing was the result of his being "outed". His autobiography is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at his closeted life in the homophobic sports world. One caveat to potential readers is that some of his accounts may be a bit more up close and personal than necessary, but they can easily be skipped over, and otherwise, this is well worth the read.

The Business of Baseball

Fair Ball: A Fan's Case for Baseball, by Bob Costas
Following the 1999 season, Bob Costas wrote this well-organized, easy to read, but very thorough "plan" for major league baseball as it moved into the 21st century. Subjects covered include logical arguments for a revenue sharing plan, a payroll ceiling and a payroll floor, simple realignment, a revised playoff structure, the elimination of the DH and the use of instant replay. It's almost ten years since it was written, and much has changed in the game since, particularly the fact that eight teams have won the subsequent nine World Series, but concerns about competitive balance are still a sleeping giant. Much of what Costas advocated for still makes sense, although may be in need of a slight revision to be practical. More importantly, though, at less than 200 pages, with typeset that resembles a children's book, it doesn't require much of a time investment, and it remains a very interesting read.

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, by Michael Lewis
Billy Beane certainly wasn't the first baseball executive to incorporate statistical analysis into personnel decisions, but his philosophies regarding under-valued skills are still considered somewhat revolutionary. This is easily the most mainstream of my recommendations here, but all I have to say is if you haven't read it yet, what are you waiting for?


  1. I'm reading Moneyball now. I was happy to see it on your list.

  2. Thanks for the recommendations. Kinsella is marvelous, for sure. And the Sidd Fitch piece in SI was a classic. I also read "Fear Strikes Out" and later appreciated Jimmy Piersall as an all-too-honest announcer for the White Sox.

    One to add for true baseball fans: "The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.," (seriously, that's the title) by Robert Coover. It's the story of a guy who makes up his own league in his head and plays the games with dice. For anyone who ever played Strat-o-matic or who ever played imaginary games in his head while pitching a tennis ball at his front porch, this book is a treat.

  3. Make that Sidd Finch, please, not Fitch.

  4. Thanks for your recommendation. I just added The Universal Baseball Association Inc. to my Christmas wish list.