Baseball books: the long and short of them

The Hot Stove League is cold, pitchers and catchers are still reporting to their wives, and if you live north of where I do, there’s probably snow in your ball yard.

What’s a baseball fan to do?

Read. Read about baseball. There’s plenty of good stuff out there. Appreciate that hockey fans, say, don’t have the wealth of choices you do.

Naturally, I have some suggestions.

If you know a dozen anecdotes from baseball lore, chances are the weird tale of Eddie Waitkus is one of them. Over the years, Bernard Malamud’s novel The Natural and the Robert Redford movie version kept the much-told story alive.

So one more examination of the Waitkus case, Mark Kram Jr.’s new Eddie & the Gun Girl, doesn’t break new ground. But it freshly and richly fertilizes it.

Here’s a one-sentence summary of the facts: Waitkus, a first baseman with the Philadelphia Phillies, was shot and nearly killed in a Chicago hotel room in 1949 by a young woman who’d had a fan’s crush on him when he played for the Cubs.

The rest of the story is well-documented. Ruth Steinhagen, who’d never met the ballplayer whose pictures adorned her home, checked into the Phillies’ hotel under an assumed name, lured Waitkus to her room with a note, and fired a shot into his abdomen with a rifle she’d purchased for the occasion. She said later she’d wanted to kill him because she’d never get to know him “in a normal way,” and that she’d intended to kill herself, as well.

Waitkus, a good-but-not-great player for the Whiz Kid-era Phillies, recovered and played again, but he went downhill quickly, on and off the field.

Kram’s piece is a creature of our time in publishing: too long to be called an article, too short to be called a book. It’s 51 pages. You can buy it from Amazon for $1.99 and read it in one sitting on your Kindle (or your Kindle for PC).

Eddie & the Gun Girl does the basics well. With chronological orderliness, it alternately traces Waitkus’ and Steinhagen’s paths to that room at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in downtown Chicago, chronicles the immediate medical and legal aftermath, then goes on tell you about the rest of the two protagonists’ lives. (They were rather desultory lives in each case.)

The added value here is Kram’s ability to put you in the time and tell the story in the context of that time:

{exp:list_maker}Ruth Steinhagen was part of the breed known as a “bobby-soxer.” Those years after The War were the era of young girls swooning over Frank Sinatra—and of “Baseball Annies” waiting outside ballparks for a glimpse of their favorite handsome baseball players. There have been several names for the type in the decades since; “groupie” comes to mind.
It was still the time of mostly day baseball—exclusively day baseball on Chicago’s North Side—which meant that players had their nights free to explore the after-dark life of lively places like Chicago. That they took advantage of the opportunity is well-documented. (RIP, Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin & Co.) Waitkus was not a league leader in carousing, but we get a glimpse of how it was.
It was the time of newspapers as dominant carriers of the latest news. What today would play out on cable news and sports networks was then the domain of headlines: WAITKUS TO FACE GUN GIRL IN COURT.
Waitkus went through excruciating rehab, which Kram describes in detail. And then there is this account of how he got through the dog days of the 1950 season, which bolsters the argument of those who say chemical enhancement of ballplayer performance didn’t begin with Jose Canseco: “The Evening Bulletin later reported that he was taking injections of ‘pep-up’ stuff in the later innings.”
What happened to Steinhagen and why has nothing to do with baseball, but Kram’s account gives us a sense of medical progress in (some of) our lifetimes. She never was convicted; the legal system found her insane. In that era, it was believed that psychological sickness stemmed from poor parenting; perhaps Steinhagen had an Electra complex, associating her victim with her father. She was diagnosed as schizophrenic, sent to an asylum, and given shock therapy. After 33 months, she was judged cured, and released.
{/exp:list_maker}
Kram (whom I worked with at the Detroit Free Press years ago), was a longtime sports writer at the Philadelphia Daily News, specializing in in-depth reporting. He has written many magazine articles and a full-length 2012 nonfiction book, Like Any Normal Day. He’s a thorough reporter and a solid writer; 65 seasons later, his is as good an account of this bizarre chapter in baseball history as we’re likely to see.

—-

Some years ago, I and co-author Joe Hoppel wrote a history/appreciation called Cubs (with a big, long subtitle), generously illustrated with period photographs and attractively published by The Sporting News. We thought we did a really nice job.

If you can still find it, buy it, by all means, but honesty compels me to tell you there’s a newer, bigger, prettier entry in the plentiful lexicon of Cubs literature, coffee table book division. It’s called Wrigley Field, An Oral and Narrative History of the Home of the Chicago Cubs, by longtime New York Times writer Ira Berkow. (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2014).

There are some big names in this book, and I don’t mean Samardzija. Former Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood and former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stephens—a Chicago native who threw out a first pitch at Wrigley—write introductions. At the end are lengthy “Wrigley memories,” interviews presented in first-person format, from well-known authors, ex-ballplayers, entertainers and politicians. (Berkow struck out on Chicagoan Barack Obama, but that guy’s a White Sox sympathizer anyway.)

In fact, it’s a history of the Cubs more than it is of the ballpark, but, then, they’re inseparable. It’s history told personally and subjectively, and, because it’s by a lifelong Cubs fan, passionately. I understand. It could not be otherwise.

—–

I’m rereading The Art of Fielding, a critically acclaimed, best-selling novel of a couple of years ago by Chad Harbach. I’m as impressed with the writing and as sympathetic to the characters as I was the first time around.

Lots of fiction uses baseball. Describing a book as a baseball-novel-that’s-not-really-about-baseball is something of a cliche, intended to indicate that the reader should find Deeper Meaning. You don’t need a master’s degree in literature to find it here.

There’s lots of baseball in The Art of Fielding. A college player, Henry Skrimshander, worships former major league shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez (jeez, where did that name come from?), and his book on playing the position (with the same name as Harbach’s book). Perhaps uniquely among fictional baseball heroes, Henry’s chief asset is his defense. He becomes a potential first-round draft pick. Then an uncharacteristic wild throw injures a friend, and suddenly Henry is Chuck Knoblauch/Steve Sax.

In less talented hands, this concept could become predictable melodrama. This novel doesn’t.

Harbach gives us a half dozen believable, multidimensional characters who become enmeshed in each others’ lives in a tangle of ways. They’re all flawed, but you find yourself wanting good things for all of them, emotionally involved in their mistakes, wanting to tell them, “no, don’t do that!”

Most fiction that uses baseball as backdrop shows you runs and hits, or pitchers who prevent them. As foreshadowed by Henry’s problem, this is a book about errors, and human beings who make them.

Go forth and read. Spring will be here before you know it.

Print Friendly
 Share on Facebook0Tweet about this on Twitter0Share on Google+0Share on Reddit0Email this to someone
« Previous: The over-the-hill gang
Next: The most interesting arbitration cases of 2014 »

Comments

  1. Bryan Cole said...

    I *loved* The Art of Fielding.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.  I was hooked by the end of the first chapter.  It’s a big book, but pitchers and catchers don’t report for another month or so.  You’ve got time.

  2. birdwatcher said...

    Great stuff Joe but a clarification for those who might buy Kram’s book expecting Mantle/Martin stories – of course, neither of these guys played in the majors until the 1950’s, Mantle in 1951 and Martin in 1950. Also, as the 2 most recent Mantle biographies demonstrate(Jane Leavy, “The Last Boy” and David Falkner, “The Last Hero” -both excellent books), playing night games did little to slow down the Mick’s night life !! Another book which does an excellent job of reconstructing the mood and times of the late 1940’s is Robert Weintraub’s “The Victory Season” which focuses on the return to normality after World War II as he reconstructs the 1946 baseball season in compelling fashion (no, I’m not his agent !).

  3. dennis Bedard said...

    A great book that captures the transition from the 40’s to the 50’s is David Halberstam’s “Summer of 49.”  And then his book “1964” does the same for the bridge between the 50’s and 60’s.

  4. 108 Double Stitches said...

    I too love a good baseball book this time of the off-season, whether it’s fiction or not. The Glory of Their Times by Lawrence Ritter also puts a human face on early baseball, great book. Also, Luke Salisbury’s The Answer Is Baseball is another favorite re-read.

  5. RC OLeary said...

    Joe, great article and some great recommendations.  I confess I have a vested interest in people enjoying baseball books as I recently published one (even has a hardball on the cover) that is a story that begins when a cop tries to arrest baseball’s home run king.  The confrontation turns deadly and leaves the survivors dealing with the aftermath…..it’s got an overleveraged baseball owner, couple of ex-wives, a corrupt Governor, a DA willing to bend the rules for political gain and some baseball as a backdrop. 

    One of my favorite scenes is an on-field fight that spills out of the dugout when the HR King doesn’t think one of his teammates hustled after an extra base hit.  If you or any of your readers are interested, the first 3 chapters are available for free download sample on my website rcoleary.com.  Would be happy to send you a copy if you’re looking for another book to read before pitchers and catchers report,

    thanks,

    RC

  6. Sabertooth said...

    Bookends:

    Nice Guys Finish Last – Leo Durocher
    Nice Guys Finish First – Monte Irvin

    Despite the overlap, every book in your baseball libraries will fit in between those two.

  7. J.Henry Waugh said...

    If you are looking for baseball books, mostly non-fiction, get in touch w/ Bobby Plapinger.

    Has massive collection, mostly non-fiction, many first editions, and signed copies. Gives discount to SABR members.  He’s first rate, I’ve been buying books from him for many, many years. Just a satisfied reader’s plug here, nothing else.

    Recommend most anything by Roger Angell or Thomas Boswell for baseball life in the 50’s-60’s. Also, Robert Creamer’s “Babe Ruth.”
    “A False Spring” by Pat Jordan is a great read about his promising pitching career that never happened.

    R. Plapinger
    R. Plapinger Baseball Books
    PO Box 1062
    Ashland, OR 97520
    tel: 541.488.1220
    e-mail:

  8. R.C. O'Leary said...

    A False Spring a great choice and a great read.
    Another of Pat Jordan’s book, this one on basketball “Chase the Game” is a great book too. He is such a great writer.

    Had not heard of DeFord’s The Entitled so I will check it out.

    Great two book ends offered by Sabertooth

  9. bucdaddy said...

    Christy Matthewson’s “Pitching in a Pinch” was surprisingly delightful, plus it’s in the public domain, so: Free download.

    You get a lot of John McGraw-isms, plus a first-hand account of the Merkle game and the 1908 pennant race from one of the game’s greatest pitchers.

    What’s not to like?

  10. Warken Stiff said...

    Have read most of the books mentioned, but for my time and money, the best baseball book of all time is “Shoeless Joe” by Warren Kinsella. Forget the movie (Field of Dreams ), read the novel and take a walk in the cornfield…..

  11. Scott said...

    A favorite of mine is Bottom of the 33rd by Dan Barry.  It’s brilliantly written and is a fast read.  You can certainly get it in by the time P & C report next month.

  12. Mike said...

    I loved the opening of your article “pitchers and catchers are still reporting to their wives”. Very clever.

    The best and funniest baseball book of all time is Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four”. Still a riot to this day – his encounters with his manager Joe Schultz were absolutely priceless. Hayhurst’s “Bullpen Gospels” is good too, but Ball Four will never be topped.

  13. said...

    As the 40th Anniversary of Ten-Cent Beer Night in Cleveland approaches, now is the perfect time to read “Ten-Cent Beer Night and the 1974 Baseball Season” by Daniel R. Grimes. This event was the biggest riot at a sporting event in the history of North America. The 1974 season was also memorable for Hank Aaron breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record, the major league debut of Ron LeFlore, and the Oakland Athletics winning their third world series in a row. Also, anyone who likes to read about Billy Martin has come to the right place. This is an ebook that can be read on any e reader tablet, Mac, and most modern computers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>