Book Review:  The Team that Changed Baseball

A writer of non-fiction faces four basic challenges:

1. The writer must choose subject matter that is inherently interesting. No matter how thoroughly researched or well-written, some subjects are simply not destined to grab and hold a reader’s attention, either because the issue itself is just plain dull, or perhaps because it’s a great subject but it’s already been covered to death. And even after selecting the right juicy topic, the writer must decide from what angle to approach it and make wise choices regarding which aspects to highlight and which to downplay or ignore.

2. The writer must present thorough research and fundamentally get the facts straight. This may seem simple and obvious, but every writer of non-fiction will acknowledge that it sounds a lot easier to do than it is, and every reader of non-fiction will note that it’s all too often not accomplished. It’s fundamental, it’s crucial, and yet its non-achievement is the most common failing in non-fiction work: to dig beyond the superficial, and to get the details right.

3. The writer must do more than just present interesting facts and details: unless the work is expressly intended as pure reference material, the writer must interpret the facts. We read non-fiction not just to learn (or to be reminded) what happened, but to gain deeper insight into why it happened, and what were its consequences, and how things might plausibly have transpired differently. At its best, this insight is fresh and penetrating: it stimulates us to see the events in a new light, to make connections we hadn’t made, and to question our prior assumptions.

4. Most difficult of all: the writer must present all of this with élan. A dry, encyclopedic rendering of facts, and even of opinions, won’t engage and delight the reader nearly as deeply as the same content delivered with genuine style. Nor can the style overshadow the substance; too much, self-consciously imposed, mugging for the reader’s attention, is generally worse than too little. The prose must be organically infused with grace, with wit, with cleverness, and with passion, yet with a delicate touch that animates the subject matter without overwhelming it.

Managing all of this is no easy task, of course. Few works, in the baseball genre or anywhere else, fully succeed on all four counts. Those that do are the ones we hail as classics, as towering landmarks of non-fiction achievement. They set the gold standard that the best writers strive to attain.

Bruce Markusen’s latest book is The Team that Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates. It’s a serious work of baseball history, and it deserves serious consideration against the highest standards of non-fiction writing.

Subject Matter

Grade: A+

The period of the late 1960s and early 1970s is one of the most vibrant in recent American history. Against the backdrop of the chronic, wrenching, divisive, demoralizing Vietnam War, the nation was embroiled in cultural and political upheaval, fracturing racial, gender, class, and generational fault lines as few periods have. In this wildly unsettled time, the 1971 Pirates were a dashing, raucous, multi-layered, and exquisitely talented baseball team, forging a division, league, and World Series championship while presenting the most racially and culturally integrated roster yet seen in professional sports.

Yet somehow the Pirates failed to capture the national imagination as thoroughly as they might have: they weren’t as celebrated at the time as such ball clubs as the 1969 New York Mets, or the 1972-74 Oakland A’s (the subject of an earlier Markusen book). The Pirates’ World Series victory was an upset over the immensely talented and highly respected Baltimore Orioles, a fascinating bunch in its own right, featuring such magnificent characters as Frank Robinson, Earl Weaver, and Jim Palmer. Yet taking all of the on-field and off-field considerations into account (most particularly, as Markusen pointedly does, the fact that on September 1st of 1971, the Pirates fielded the very first all-black starting lineup in major league history), it may well be the case that the ’71 Pirates are the single most compelling team of that era.

This is a story that deserves to be told, and it hasn’t been, at least not this fully.

Research and Accuracy

Grade: A-

This is where Markusen’s strengths most come to the fore. The book was many years in the making, and the painstaking depth and quality of research shines through on page after page. Countless little-known details and anecdotes are presented, the bounty of many painstaking hours at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, and most tellingly, the payoff of interviews with many key 1971 Pirates’ players, as well as General Manager Joe Brown, coach Bill Virdon, and broadcaster Nellie King.

The Pirates’ 1971 season is told on a nearly game-by-game, and sometimes it seems nearly inning-by-inning, basis. If this impeccably detailed chronology can veer into the mind-numbing—and we’ll get to that—it never fails to impress with its catalogue of facts, big and small, familiar and obscure, all impeccably proofread and fact-checked.

Well, almost all. The book doesn’t quite get right the background story of superstar Roberto Clemente’s 1954 acquisition by Pittsburgh. Markusen doesn’t flub it nearly as badly as did a recent high-profile Clemente biography, and it’s certainly true that the details of a 1954 transaction are hardly central to the story of the 1971 team, but it is the case that Clemente is as close to a single central character as this book has—his name is in the subtitle, after all—and, hey, if you’re going to include this detail, it should be correct. See the References and Resources section below for the specifics.

We’ll have to give Markusen a minor ding for that, but overall this book is extremely thorough and precise.

Interpretation

Grade: C

The book does a wonderful job of allowing us to get to know the major characters as people, beyond their exploits on the field. Clemente, Danny Murtaugh, Willie Stargell, and Steve Blass shine through in particular as complex, multi-dimensional personalities.

And Markusen focuses on the issue of the racial integration of the Pirates’ roster as a central theme, demonstrating how the organization under General Manager Brown went about player evaluation and selection in a remarkably color-blind manner, in distinct contrast to the semi-integrated standard of the day. However, it must be said that there is more to this troubling issue than Markusen explores. The book doesn’t delve very deeply at all into the larger context of black/white racial, and/or Latino/Anglo cultural, complexities as they stewed in the turbulent Pittsburgh of the early 1970s, nor of the nation at large.

Nor does the book make much effort to place the Pirates and major league baseball of the day into the still broader context of the US in 1971: the Vietnam War and its consequent (often violent) public protests, the counterculture and the drug culture (a particularly rich vein to explore with the acid-dropping Dock Ellis at hand), the economic struggles of the city of Pittsburgh (and similar “Rust Belt” baseball towns such as Cleveland and Detroit) and its impact on baseball attendance, or the dark and stormy U.S. political climate under the Nixon administration. Instead, outside of frequent comments by Pirates’ players about their interpersonal relationships with teammates, the book focuses almost entirely upon the games on the field—indeed it covers the games on the field in close to day-by-day, almost play-by-play detail.

Thus, as an insight into the particular men who comprised the 1971 Pirates and their daily adventures in achieving their championship season, the book is invaluable. However, it eschews multiple and obvious opportunities to explore wider and deeper means to connect this baseball team and season with particular and fascinating surroundings. Markusen could have done much more with this than he does.

Style

Grade: D

Sigh.

Okay, let’s state the good news: Markusen most definitely avoids the sin of laying on too much style. “Overwritten” is an adjective that never comes close to describing this book.

Alas, the book exhibits essentially no writing style whatsoever. Facts, dates, and quotes are all presented in a basic, straightforward manner. The story follows a simple, no-nonsense chronological line, from spring training trough to the World Series. All is offered in a manner that is clear, direct, and—well, there’s just no other way to say it—somewhat dull.

This is not a book in which the reader will be delighted with the author’s subtle humor (or even unsubtle humor), or startled by the author’s anger, or inspired by the author’s passion, or perplexed by the author’s point of view, or even just impressed by the author’s clever turn of phrase. Instead, alas, the book reads as dry and colorless as a textbook: it doggedly, steadfastly plods along, in a bland, safe monotone.

The Bottom Line

So, this is a book with some clear strengths and clear weaknesses. I guess that means it won’t go down in history as one of the great classics of the genre (but then, how many do?), nor even is it just a good book for every reader. Some will no doubt find it much more satisfying than others.

I’d sum it up this way:

- Pirates fans, especially Pirates fans who were thrilled to watch that great 1971 team, will love this book.

- Fanciers of baseball history, especially the baseball history of the 1970s, will find a lot of value in it.

- Those interested in understanding the interrelationship between what was going on in MLB in the 1970s and the larger U.S. reality won’t get a whole lot out of this one.

- Fanciers of elegant writing will, shall we say, not be enthralled.

As for me, I’m not a Pirates fan, (though I did, as an adolescent, play a complete Strat-o-Matic season with the 1970 Pirates, just because they were such an interestingly constructed team), so set that aside in my case. But as a baseball historian, I learned a lot from this book, and will likely turn to it as a resource. As one deeply interested in the placement of baseball within the larger culture, and as a lover of great writing, this book doesn’t do anything for me.

But one out of three ain’t bad; last I checked that’s a .333 average. The kind of mark Clemente used to put up. I give this book a modulated thumbs-up.

References & Resources
Markusen asserts (page 46) that the Pirates were able to draft Clemente from the Brooklyn Dodgers because:

In 1954, other teams had the option of drafting players who had been given substantial bonuses and had not been protected on a 40-man major league roster. Since Clemente had received a bonus of well over the $4,000 limit, he fell into the category of unprotected players.

This isn’t exactly untrue, but it rather misses the point. There was nothing special about the rules of 1954 or about Clemente’s bonus that led to his being drafted: the Rule V draft had been in effect for decades prior to 1954 (and exists to this day), and Clemente wasn’t available for the draft because of his bonus (which technically had been paid by the Montreal Royals of the International League, the holder of his contract), he was available for the draft because he wasn’t on the Brooklyn 40-man roster, period. The bonus issue here is a red herring; Clemente was plucked in the 1954 Rule V draft just as were 56 other players from many other minor league teams (including such luminaries as Jim King, Glen Gorbous, and Mickey Grasso), and their defining status wasn’t what bonus amounts they had or hadn’t received, rather it was that none of them were included on a major league roster.

Bruce Markusen and I don’t know each other well, but I’m confident that I speak for him when I say we’re friends. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him personally on a couple of my sojourns to his hometown of Cooperstown, New York (quaint little burg, you may have heard of it) over the past few years, and we’ve engaged in quite a few e-mail exchanges. At Bruce’s request, I contributed a few tidbits to his book Tales from the Mets Dugout. I wrote this review at Bruce’s request as well, and I trust he will appreciate the criticisms within it, as well as the compliments, as sincerely presented in the spirit of collegial respect.

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