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December 27, 2010

Prospectus Perspective

Baseball and Christmas Loot

by Christina Kahrl

Let's face it, you're hopeless. Your friends know, your family knows. Your loved ones and children, too. Even the dog knows, without even the benefit of your getting it to the ballpark. The secret's out: you enjoy baseball.

Every year, baseball-related gifts get given, by you and to you. There are some you've expected for years, and others you've been gung-ho to check out because they only recently got released or published. Even when you have a football-first family member or two—as I do, with diehard Steelers and 49ers fans to keep civilized—there's room for baseball-related gift-giving. Both of my brothers got black A's caps, for example, because some loyalties linger, decades after we've all made our separate ways from California.

But inevitably, the big day's come and gone, and now I'm left with a stack of my own baseball-related loot to peruse, learn from, or enjoy. I'd encourage you to share your own recommendations, stories of avarice rewarded, or books, gear, games, garb, or whatever you've gotten, because I think we'd all welcome advice and suggestions. After all, there's always more stuff to look forward to.

In the meantime, here's my own extended list of holiday-related loot and winter reading that has piled up, as well as a few suggestions based on stuff that I gave.

  • Perhaps predictably, at the head of the list is Charlie Finley: The Outrageous Story of Baseball's Super Showman, by G. Michael Green and Roger D. Launius (Walker, 2010), but that's because of the back story, in that once upon a time, when I was the acquisitions editor at Brassey's six years ago, I was talking with Mark Armour, co-author of the award-winning Paths to Glory—whose recently published biography, Joe Cronin (Nebraska, 2010) comes highly recommended—about doing a Finley bio. Strangely enough, a couple of years later, I was approached by a major house to do a Finley bio, but passed on the opportunity, in part because I felt I'd be cutting in front of a good man who had already broached the idea with me.

    From my way of thinking, beyond the mayhem that trailed his participation in the game as one of the last true owner/operators, a Finley bio has to deal with his investment in multiple sports, because you can't talk about his perception of franchise management—not to mention his radical position on free agency—without understanding that his world view was created by his previous participation in owning NHL and ABA franchises, at a time when the former was combating the World Hockey Association, and when the latter was part of the upstart league's ultimately successful challenge to the NBA. In both cases, talent raids, bidding wars, and free agency were basic elements of the landscape, and experiences that gave Finley a somewhat unique tack on what was to come as Curt Flood's battle was fought and won. Which is not to say that Finley is sympathetic, but he was remarkably ubiquitous across sports at a time when rival leagues were challenging established leagues, and losing (in the case of the WHA or WFL) or winning (as the ABA and AFL did), and Finley was one of the few figures you'd find on both sides of that combat.

    For better or for worse, Green and Launius don't appear to have given Finley's other-sport ventures that much attention, but that's also understandable—most of us are more seriously invested in the subject of the man's crazed combats with players, managers, agents, commissioners, fans, and municipalities in baseball, all while helping (or hindering) the erection of baseball's greatest dynasty since the fall of the Yankees in '64, and remained such until the Bombers' re-birth in the late '90s. It should make for an entertaining read, even where the stories are well-known, and it appears that they've given some serious consideration to the economic considerations that ultimately undermined Finley's ability to retain his personnel, and ultimately to own and operate a team.
     
  • Which takes me to an interesting read recently concluded, if we can count November gifts—Dan Epstein's Big Hair and Plastic Grass (St. Martin's, 2010). I was very much looking forward to this, because who doesn't want a broad-spectrum look at the game during its most innovative, transitional period, in terms of on-field tactics, fashion (uniforms, facial hair, wife-swapping), or as a reflection of the society that sustained it. I'll keep this short, but I'd pass along a qualified recommendation. If I had to roughly sketch the division of content within the book, I'd suggest about a third of the total word count is the interesting stuff about baseball within '70s, a third reflects the equally interesting anecdotes and stories of the heroes and goats of the period, with all due consideration to innumerable Pirates and Yankees, Reds and A's, with more than enough Dock Ellis for all.

    It's the last third that produces some modest dissatisfaction, but that's because Epstein fulfills a somewhat formulaic expectation: describing outcomes as the product of back-of-the-baseball card metrics. To his credit, Epstein makes no apologies for this, and explains his reasons why up front, and I would suggest that trying to reach a broader group of readers while communicating a good amount of history that may be new to a general audience is a worthwhile goal in itself. But it's also a frustrating reminder that the best baseball history should involve tools now decades old as far as that general audience is concerned; OBP wasn't new when Michael Lewis wrote about it in the Aughties, or we did in the '90s, or Eric Walker in the '80s, or Bill James and Pete Palmer or Earl Weaver earlier still. To read about a team's victories, and the coincidence of several stars' batting average and RBI tallies, or the leading pitchers' wins totals, just produces a reminder of work that yet needs doing. That's not Epstein's fault—he writes a fun, entertaining, brisk account of the period, has fun relating his obvious love of the subject, and if you've got a cross-country flight or two, this is well worth bringing along in the carry-on. Or, this being December, when memories of sunshine and beaches are dim, a fine beach book.
     
  • On a more serious front, I've got Aaron Skirboll's The Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven: How a Ragtag Group of Fans Took the Fall for Major League Baseball (Chicago Review Press) to look forward to. Maybe it's the sheer volume of pontification from people inside the game and out about how upset they are about people using any illegal substance in the game in the '90s and early Aughties—especially when PED usage was not being addressed by the industry—but a book-length treatment of the game's previous big drug scandal seems timely. The comparison in terms of previous permissiveness and a necessary attempt to make a clean break with the recent past is obvious enough,  but the contrast in terms of the very real punishments meted out should be interesting. While the already published reviews suggest that this will wind up as another indictment of baseball's ability to police itself, I'm looking at it as another data point in the story of how a human institution responds to a mushrooming scandal, with worthwhile comparisons not just to the present, but also to the Black Sox scandal, as documented in the late Gene Carney's incomparable Burying the Black Sox (Potomac, 2006).
     
  • Not really part of the Christmas pile is the copy of Jane Leavy's The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood (Harper, 2010). Beyond the careful research that should make this an automatically necessary addition to anybody's baseball library, I'm looking forward to Leavy's frank take on the obvious generational component that seems to get overlooked or taken as a matter of fact when talking about perhaps the flawed of the Big Apple's baseball icons of the '50s. Too often, this sort of book is being written by a Boomer looking to celebrate his or her own childhood; Leavy's willingness to discuss the problem of what's personal to the author is what should make this an especially important sequel of sorts to her biography of Sandy Koufax, a subject as slippery, but in its own way.
     
  • Finally, from the "gifts given" file, let me pass along a pair of recommendations as far as a pair of books worth handing out, worthwhile for journalists and historians alike, on the subject of women in the game. First, from the broader view of how women have made progress over the full span of the game's history, there's Jean Hastings Ardell's Breaking Into Baseball (SIU Press, 2005), which is a great book because of its willingness to look at every possible intersection between women and the game. Whether playing or writing, umpiring or playing, she delivered the comprehensive book on the subject with the kind of care that gender studies experts would do well to emulate. In a more contemporary vein, Emma Span's 90% of the Game is Half Mental    is sort of a primary source document, reflecting her experiences as a practicing journalist and as a fan, and how to reconcile the two while dealing with some of the absurdities that go with covering a team on the beat. If the former is macroscopic in dealing with how women have fought for and become integrated, the latter is the microscopic treatment of the practical outcome when it comes to the practice of journalism while retaining a fundamental joy in the game itself. For anyone looking to break into sports or sports journalism, these make an important pair of easy reads on an understudied component of those trying to make the jump.

With that, here's my question to all of you: what did you give, or get, and what would you recommend?

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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