March 12, 2012
"Baseball for Dummies", by Joe Morgan
In Baseball for Dummies, 3rd Edition, the good folks at Wiley Publishing take on the challenge of educating the world all about the greatest sport ever invented. To do this, they enlist the help of author Richard Lally, columnist and author of the Bill "Spaceman" Lee biography The Wrong Stuff and, of course, Joe Morgan.
The book attempts to cover all aspects of the game, from the simple batter-pitcher matchup and other game mechanics to everything else even tangentially-related, like weight-training, league structure, and getting a baseball job. The real meat of the book, though, is the "How to Play the Game" section that covers roughly 200 of the book's 380 non-appendix pages. In that section, the authors include chapters on hitting, pitching, defense, and baserunning.
"Authors" might be a bit misleading. While the opening chapters of the book are clearly written from a safe, impersonal distance, the playing chapters have a very different feel. Morgan chimes in often with descriptions of how or why he did a certain thing as a player ("I didn't wear a glove when I hit because I liked the feel of the wood against my fingers.") as he imparts his lessons. This shouldn't be confusing, but somehow they manage to make it so. Throughout the book, there are little icons with Morgan's smiling face that read "Joe Says". They signify small sidebars or paragraphs where Morgan is talking directly to the reader. For some reason, the icons are also placed in these chapters that are so clearly written by Morgan, sometimes only sentences before Morgan rushes into his first-person accounts. I was thoroughly bewildered the first time this happened, as I couldn't figure out who the "I" was since I assumed that Morgan was only speaking in the "Joe Says" parts.
Morgan does cover a great deal about playing the game. The chapter on hitting is 40 pages long, second in length only to the fielding chapter (more on that in a minute). Topics include gripping the bat, positioning yourself in the batter's box, the "dying art of bunting", and even how to play pepper. A page is also given over to Rusty Staub on his approach to a pinch-hitting role. At 62 pages, the chapter on fielding is far-and-away the longest in the book. That length is mostly due to the chapter's playing guides for each position, with defensive tips from All-Stars and Hall of Famers. The contributors read like a who's who of … Joe Morgan's friends. Ken Griffey, Sr. and Willie Mays cover the outfield, Barry Larkin and Derek Jeter give tips at shortstop, Morgan himself covers second, Willie McCovey and Keith Hernandez cover first, and Johnny Bench takes the plate. The most interesting inclusion is Ken Caminiti as the third base expert, though there is very little true insight offered by any of the players. The pitching chapter, at fifteen pages and featuring tips from Bob Gibson and Lee, feels clinical and inadequate compared to the offensive and defensive sides.
And, yes, you'll probably realize from the Caminiti inclusion that the book is a bit old. The first edition of "Baseball for Dummies" was published in 1998; this third edition came out at the start of the 2005 season. Thankfully, very little of the book is impacted by its age (though readers looking for job advice and technology help might feel otherwise). In fact, reading the book today has some benefits: Morgan includes a series of "top ten" lists at the back of the book, some of which have not aged well. The top ten current pitchers, for example, includes Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, and Jason Schmidt, while the top ten current fielders includes Luis Castillo.
The most intriguing list to read seven years later, though, is Morgan's "Top Ten Future Stars". The ten names he gives are: Mark Prior, Miguel Cabrera, Vernon Wells, Carlos Beltran, Hank Blalock, Francisco Rodriguez, C.C. Sabathia, Jose Reyes, Dontrelle Willis, and Michael Young. (Note: There are no references to the 2004 season even though the book was published in 2005.) Cabrera, Sabathia, Beltran and Reyes were clear home runs, but Willis, Blalock and the rest raise an eyebrow here in 2012.
I set out reading this because I thought, a bit cynically, that a book called Baseball for Dummies written by Joe Morgan would be an unintentionally funny read. While some passages were classic "Joe speak"—mashers shouldn't beat the shift by dinking a single to the opposite field because "that's what the opposition wants you to do" and "I don't care how many home runs you hit all season, your job is to bunt that runner to second base" with no outs and the winning run on first in the ninth—it was mostly a professional look at the tools and knowledge needed to follow a game of baseball. It was hardly engrossing reading, though, and there were a few mistakes here and there ("Derek Lee" was mentioned more than once). Also, some concepts (like balks or the hit-and-run) were mentioned early but not fully explained until many chapters later. I could see a use for it as an occasional reference tool, but even then it's not enough for even moderately-knowledgeable baseball fans.
If you know someone who really wants to learn the game of baseball (and is a big Dummies fan), or if you're just dying to read Joe Morgan and his Big Red Machine teammates talk way too much about the 1975 World Series, "Baseball for Dummies, 3rd Edition" might fit the bill. Otherwise, you should probably keep reading everything here at Baseball Prospectus!