Years ago I attended a banquet of some sort, I don’t remember its function, and during the course of making polite conversation with people I barely knew, mentioned that I’d been reading books on the history of baseball and some of its larger-than-life characters.
Lo and behold, there were several other baseball fans among my table-mates, as one might find within virtually any cross-section of Americans, banquet-bound or otherwise. We shared some of the same pastime-related interests — it was shaping up to be a better banquet than some others.
But the fellow guest I remember most was a man “way more into baseball” than any other person I’ve ever met — who, once the conversation unexpectedly entered his wheelhouse, spent the rest of the evening peppering us with baseball trivia questions related to arcane statistics and dates he’d committed to memory. I knew the answers to exactly none of them; I’m not that kind of baseball fan.
It was a particular relief to eventually escape. Something I found enjoyable and relaxing had momentarily begun to feel like a test, a chore — and I’d never want that to happen with baseball.
Beyond following the Braves for years, many of them darn good years, as a younger person residing in the southeastern U.S., some of my favorite memories are baseball-related. When my wife and I first began dating, our favorite road-trip, made from the far northwest corner of Arkansas, was to Kansas City for evening games at Kauffman Stadium. The Royals were often not very good — they were on the cusp of their recent World Series appearances just before we moved away from the area — but it’s a beautiful stadium and a great place to watch a game.
A Red Sox game I watched with my dad — versus the White Sox, in Chicago — is another favorite. A game between championship teams, though only half that equation was known at the time: the Red Sox had just won the Series and the White Sox would go on to win it later that season.
But back to books. At one point I’d built up a pretty good-sized personal library, large enough that it became difficult to move around — more difficult the older I got. Prior to a recent relocation, I donated the bulk of the books I owned to a local library, keeping just a few boxes of my favorites. Many of the books about baseball, I held onto.
With that winnowing out process still fairly fresh in my mind — and spring training now underway — here are a few reading suggestions for those who need more than exhibition games to make it to Opening Day:
• “Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life”, by Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Ben Cramer. This paints a complete and complex portrait — touching on the good, the bad and the open-to-interpretation — of one of the 20th century’s best-known people.
• “Ted Williams”, by Leigh Montville. Similar to the DiMaggio book, in that it pulls no punches in describing a complicated human being — and paints a portrait not only of the ballplayer, but of the times he played and lived through.
• Here are two books about two of baseball’s greatest pitchers — one righty and one lefty: “Don’t Look Back: Satchel Paige in the Shadows of Baseball”, by Mark Ribowsky; and “Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy”, by Jane Leavy.
• “The Old Ball Game”, by Frank Deford. Christy Mathewson, whose name few people today recognize, was one of baseball’s first celebrity-superstars pitching for the Giants (of New York) in the early 1900s. His Hall of Fame plaque reads in part, “Matty was master of them all.” This book gives one an idea of why, and why he and manager John McGraw are considered among the architects of the sport we know today.
• “Summer of ‘49”, by David Halberstam. This one involves both DiMaggio and Williams, along with many other colorful characters involved in a pennant race (from the year referenced in the title) between the Red Sox and Yankees. Other Halberstam-authored favorites: “October 1964”, and the “The Teammates”.
Hats off to fans who can name the league leaders in average, homeruns or RBIs for any year pulled out of a hat — or, for that matter, anyone who can list today’s top performers in BABIP or wOBA or xFIP (you’ll have to Google those). One of the things that makes baseball great is there are so many different avenues to pursue in enjoying the game.
That includes reading some excellent books. They’re about ballplayers, sure, but the best ones are also about America — the way our games and how we’ve followed them remind us of where we’ve been and who we are.
John Dilmore is editor of the Roswell Daily Record. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this column are those of the author.