Must be spring. Birds are returning. Roads are under construction. And a new flock of baseball books have appeared in the stores.
One of the new flock out this year is, Hammerin’ Hank, George Almighty, and the Say Hey Kid: The Year that Changed Baseball Forever, by John Rosengren. As you might gather from the title, it’s about the 1973 season.
Sure enough, as Rosengren recounts, it was an eventful year in baseball. He focuses on five main story lines, three of which are listed in the title. Those story lines are:
- Hank Aaron‘s yearlong march to 714. Though he comes up short, it’s a big part of what made that season special.
- The Yankees got a new owner. Some bloke named Steinbrenner. Despite an initial statement that he’d let the baseball men call the shots, he involved himself very quickly.
- Willie Mays and the 1973 Mets. It’s a double-edged story. For Mays, it’s a tale of decline, as he limped his way into retirement. For the Mets, it’s the year of “YA GOTTA BELIEVE!” and their miraculous stretch run comeback.
- Finally, it was the year a new rule went into effect – the DH. Rather than discover all the DHs, Rosengren focuses on one, Orlando Cepeda. He makes a sensible argument that Cepeda was the sort of player the rule most helped, as his knees made it impossible for him to play the field at all.
In general, Rosengren does a good job telling these tales, and the book makes a nice, light read. If reading about the above sounds interesting to you, check it out.
For me, one of the most interesting parts was hearing about Atlanta’s almost complete indifference to Aaron’s home run quest. Barely 12,000 showed up for Hank Aaron poster night. When he hit No. 710 in September, only 2,873 showed up. When he crushed No. 711 a week later, a minuscule crowd of 1,362 was on hand. (Rosengren incorrectly calls that the smallest crowd in Braves’ history. Though it set a since-broken low attendance mark in Atlanta, they drew in their previous cities).
When people think of the hard times Aaron went through on his quest for the record, they think of the letters and death threats (which are recounted in this book). The sparse crowds have been forgotten, and they must have played a big role in his sense that people were out to get him. Individuals anonymously said they hated him while the masses in Atlanta refused to embrace him.
Little wonder that he considered his tremendous ovation at that year’s All-Star Game in Kansas City, an AL park he’d never been to before, to be one of the best compliments he ever received.
Charles Finley, in his own diabolical way, steals the show, just as he did in the season. Whether it is stories of his childhood egg selling business or his decision to insert a mustache clause in Rollie Fingers‘s contract, he’s always a compelling original.
When Dick Williams was in the hospital recovering from an emergency appendectomy, he ordered him to leave his bed and rush to KC in order to manage the All-Star Game. He ordered trainers to refrain from making a statement when Billy North went down with injury. More infamously, he bullied second baseman Mike Andrews into signing a phony injury statement after an error in the World Series.
One of the best moments in the book comes with Andrews in the World Series. When Dick Williams, violating direct orders, used Andrews as a pinch-hitter in Game 4, the crowd gave such a rousing and prolonged ovation, that Finley felt obligated to join in. After some tepid claps, the owner caved and gave a full-fledged cheer for the player he tried to remove. It’s like a scene from a lame Hollywood movie (specifically, I’m thinking Rocky IV).
There’s several nice little tidbits also tucked away in the text. Among my favorites:
- At one point, Stan Musial was the only living member of the 3,000 Hit Club.
- Hank Aaron was second only to Nixon in mail received. No. 3? Dinah Shore.
- Baseball players made only four times as much as an average worker then.
- The A’s only officially drew 1,000,000 fans that year because Finley had the team issue a bogus attendance count for the last game.
- The A’s ran a front office staff of less than 10 people. Even still, they had tremendous turnover because no one could stand Finley.
Since this is a sabermetric site, I should warn you Rosengren relies on the old standards, such as batting average and won-loss records. Thus he makes some statements that’ll grate on stathead ears, such as declaring 1966 to be Mays’ last really good season, or saying judging Jon Matlock’s season based on his 14-16 record.
However, while it’s a good job, it ain’t a great one. Several issues stick out. First, judging by the endnotes, he kept the research fairly basic. The main sources used are previously published books that already deal with this season (such as Hank Aaron’s autobiography), and The Sporting News.
On occasion, he’ll dive into Sports Illustrated and he did some interviews as well, but those are the major sources. Though much of the year focuses on Oakland and Atlanta, there are no newspaper accounts from the former and few from the latter.
That impacts the narrative. While there are some nice details, an awful lot of it is rather familiar to a reader who knows something about baseball history. Raise your hand if you knew Hank Aaron received a bunch of hate mail, or that Finley was a jerk. It lacks the punch of a book like Cait Murphy’s “Crazy ’08,” where every page contained a wonderful nugget or two.
Second, Rosengren engages in what I call the ESPN-fication of sports history. That’s when you find an appropriately sepia-toned storyline and you run with it. You don’t really look into it that deeply; just assume it’s so. After all, it fits the generally held clichés, and makes good copy. Rosengren pulls off a Mike Greenberg imitation a few times, such as:
1) When discussing George Steinbrenner’s impact on baseball, on page 12 he writes, “The Boss, driven by his thirst for power and fueled by love of profits, would make money the predominant factor in baseball.”
When was this mythical time when owners considered winning to be sacrosanct over profits? Was it when Connie Mack sold his entire team off? Was it the other time he sold the team off? MLB has always been about money.
And is Steinbrenner really the best person to exemplify this? For better or for worse, he’ll invest in the team to win. It’s a far cry from Twins owner Carl Polhard, who a few years ago had a payroll smaller than the money he received from revenue sharing.
2) Along similar lines, when Vida Blue mentioned that he looked forward to the postseason because it meant a bigger paycheck, Rosengren moralizes on page 257, “Sorry kids. Like the man said, today’s ballplayer isn’t on the field simply for your viewing pleasure: he’s in it for himself. Welcome to the new age of baseball.”
That only holds true if by “new age of baseball” he meant since the Cincinnati Reds went openly pro in 1869. When money’s involved, that always gets people’s attention. Dizzy Dean walked off the Cards in mid-1934 in a dispute over cash, and Joe DiMaggio had money preseason holdouts over cash.
3) The title itself, which declares 1973 “Changed Baseball Forever” is an example. Normally, I wouldn’t comment on it, post-colon portions of book titles are virtually always concocted by the evil overlords of the marketing department, but in this case it mirrors something Rosengren says.
The book ends with him declaring 1973 to be “the season that changed the game forever.” To be fair, I can agree with this up to a point—especially with the introduction of the DH. Then again, every year changes baseball in one-way or another. Its uniqueness isn’t especially unique. The nature of baseball dictates that all seasons have good storylines.
Along the lines of ESPN-ification, he also draws parallels between Finley and Steinbrenner. Now, that’s actually better than what ESPN would do. The clichéd storyline is that Steinbrenner, especially the pre-Joe Torre version, was the worst, most obnoxious owner in modern sports. Putting them on the same playing field serves as a correction.
It still greatly understates Finley’s malevolence, though. Even based on the evidence in this book, Finley was far worse. Steinbrenner didn’t continually try to spin medical exams for the purposes of teams. Even he couldn’t go through staff as fast as Finley could. No owner was as loathed by his players as Charlie O. Finley.
There are also some minor factual errors, but there’s nothing working a fuss over. For example, he says Orlando Cepeda set the Giants single-season RBI record when it was just the San Francisco record.
Overall, I did enjoy it. Comparing it to some other books I’ve reviewed for THT, it’s not as good as Joe Posnanski’s Soul of Baseball but it’s a damn site better than The Gashouse Gang. You should look into it, but you may not want to put it at the top of your summer reading list.