birthday greetings

Happy Birthday to Jackie Robinson! Born January 31st, 1919.

I was reminded of his birthday by today’s nice Google Doodle.

jackie_robinsons_94th_birthday-1015005-hp

Perhaps Google has heard about my year of baseball?

In other news, it remains bitterly cold here, January in Minnesota, what can you expect, but I am all baseball, so I think the cold seems even colder for me than for everyone else. But I tell myself that it is early early spring, and, in fact, the start of spring training is just around the corner.

In the bits of baseball research I have done, in the course of generating ideas for AYOBB, I find that there are about a billion blogs out there devoted to every arcane detail of the game. It’s like the game is sold out. It’s standing room only on the internet for yet another blog about baseball.

This takes some of the pressure off, I guess.

Maybe I should make this a blog about baseball blogs? Plenty of grist for that mill.

Antiques Road Game

We turned on Antiques Roadshow tonight, they were in Boston, and a woman brought in a nice old baseball signed by the 1915 World Champion Boston Red Sox. It was really a nice looking baseball, with red and blue stitches, which the appraiser, Mike Gutierrez, said was standard up till about 1934.1915 red sox ball

And Mr. Gutierrez also said it should be insured to about $35,000. I imagine that’s largely because of the very nice Babe Ruth Signature on it.

Babe had a pretty good year for the Red Sox in 1915. He was 20 years old and it was his second year in the league, (he’d played in five games in 1914,) and while he only hit 4 home runs, he was 18-8 as a pitcher, with a 2.44 ERA.

1915 red sox

The World Champion 1915 Red Sox

In 1916, Ruth was even better, went 23-12, with a league leading 1.75 ERA, but then, a few years later the Yankees got him, and I guess they thought they could make an outfielder out of him. And Babe’s promising career as a pitcher was cut short.

If you want to see the video of the appraisal you can find it here. (Thanks PBS!)

Baseball America, by Don Honig

baseball america by honigMy first book for the Year of Baseball is Donald Honig’s Baseball America.  It seemed appropriate to set the stage with some history of the game, and Honig is known as “one of America’s most prominent baseball historians.” Other books by Honig include The American League, The National League, Baseball When the Grass was Real, Baseball’s 10 Greatest Teams, and more. (None of which I’ve read yet, sorry to say.)

While I’ve read quite a few books about baseball, this one I more or less avoided, even though I had a copy sitting on my bookshelf for the past few years. It used to lurk in the back corner next to another unread classic – The Glory of Their Times – but something got into me last year and I think I let go of Glory. (A move I now regret. However, I may be wrong about this, as I haven’t plumbed the back reaches of my baseball shelf yet.) I’m not sure why I did not pick this up earlier. Perhaps because I’ve already read other baseball history books, so this was not going to be a fresh story for me. Perhaps because the cover wasn’t so attractive. Perhaps because it seemed like “an undertaking, at just over 300 pages.

Well, for the Year of Baseball, I finished Baseball America a couple of weeks ago, and have to say that it was a pretty good book. It covers the history of baseball from the beginning, is detailed but not overly detailed, and nicely sets the history of the game in the context of the times. I thought Honig covered the early giants of the game, such as McGraw and Mathewson, Cobb and Mack, particularly well. He gracefully conveyed the progression of the game, the gradual changes over the passage of time, and also touched on the way baseball mirrors life, from the early promise of youth to the unavoidable failures of age, such a short period of time Puckett 1985 Donrussfor everyone, but especially for a ballplayer. It’s an acceleration of life. I often find myself thinking of that, when the promising young rookie arrives on the scene. They get a brief moment in the sun, perhaps, and then the game moves on.

Honig’s book is concise, well paced, and at times excellent. The section on Jackie Robinson was especially well done, as was his portrayal of Grover Cleveland Alexander. The book seemed a bit weaker as Honig approached more recent history. It seemed to flag in sharpness, detail, and thoughtfulness, and it seems a bit as if Honig has written this part more out of an effort to be complete than out of real interest or enjoyment. I’ve seen this happen in other histories, where the stronger early material seems like the impetus for the book, and the latter part of the story is more of a workmanlike completion.

Or it could be, in  this case, that the recent history is too near at hand, and Honig lacks sufficient distance to relate the story with the same depth given the earlier days. Either way, I quibble. On the whole, this was a thoughtful and considered work, written with authority and deep knowledge of the game.  If you are looking for a book that covers the history of baseball from the very beginning, this would be a good choice.

Hot Stove League

hot stove league d frWe are right smack dab in the middle of the Hot Stove League season, and, with single digit high temps, it’s a good thing. Throw another log or two on that fire. There’s a lot of the HSL season left to play.

“Hot Stove League” is one of those terms thrown around for years that no one knows the origin of. The earliest citation I’ve seen is from a 1909 newspaper, but I’m sure it came into use much earlier than that, and probably just shortly after stoves were invented.

HSL d

But I imagine old uncle Joe, sitting on a cracker barrel (a barrel of crackers? really?) talking about the gas house gang or murderer’s row or that young kid Koufax. Sipping warm cider, perhaps. Or perhaps something more medicinal. Hiram, the banker, in the old rocking chair, brings up Lefty Grove. Nobody better. “No left-hander, that is.”.

I guess the modern version is the hot screen, which is not as warm and friendly as the old stove in the country store, but perhaps with the same cast of characters.

Hot stoves are necessary here in Minnesota. For Twins fans, the high point of the HSL is probably Twins Fest, which takes place in January, this weekend, in the old barn, the Metrodome.

For a $15 (adult) admission charge (you’ve got to spend money to spend money, I guess) you get to come in and get player autographs, visit the Twins Hall of Fame, visit the trading tables of the sports memorabilia collectors, bid on items at the silent or live auctions — such as the Rod Carew Package (starting bid, $300) or the Kevin Correia Autographed Ball (starting bid, $30), and, well, more! Test out your baseball skills. Get your dome dog. Get your picture taken with the players, from Oliva to Sano, and think about the summer game, surrounded by like-minded citizens, all counting down the days til opening day.

sf call, nov 25 1913 b

cold comfort, indeed

So long, Stan

Stan Musial - sabrStan the Man.

Stan Musial passed away yesterday, at 92. A sad day for all you Cardinals fans, and all fans of baseball.

Stan had a stellar 22 year career in St. Louis, and was in 24 all-star games (they played two All-Star games in 1959, 60, 61, and 62) and retired in 1963. Seven National League Batting Titles, a .331 lifetime batting average, with 475 home runs.

Playing in St. Louis, Stan perhaps did not get the same press coverage or attention as did his contemporaries, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. He was also just a nice guy who played ball and didn’t make waves or grab headlines.

A rather inauspicious start to this blog, the deaths of Weaver and Musial. This is one of the ways that baseball is maybe a bit different from other sports, I think. The long history of the game, back into the 19th century, and the legends handed down over the generations. It has the sense of religion or mythology. When giants strode the earth. Those were the days. When Williams, DiMaggio, and Musial walked among us.

So long, Stan. Good game.

So long, Earl

Today’s paper brings the sad news that Earl Weaver, long time manager of the Baltimore Orioles, has passed away. Earl was just 82.

earl weaver 2008The Baltimore Orioles went to the World Series four times during Weaver’s tenure, and won the Series in 1970, in five games, over Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine. In 1969 and 1970 the Orioles beat up on the Twins in the playoffs. Perhaps I should be grateful that the Twins lost to the Orioles and thus were spared contests with the Mets and the Reds, but it may be that the Twins… could have… maybe… well, no, probably not. In any case, I haven’t really liked the Orioles since 1969. Not that I hold grudges.

Earl’s Orioles relied on pitching and power hitting, rather than some of the finer points of baseball strategy. He’s also been given some credit for the use of statistics in creating favorable pitcher/batter matchups, back in a time where that wasn’t so common.

He’s also legendary for his many arguments with umpires, and was ejected from games by umpires over 90 times in his career — including twice, it says in Wikipedia, before the games even started.
Kudos to Earl for that.

So long, Earl. Good game.

the endless summer begins…

cold

Right now – 7:29 in the morning, January 18 – it is 22 degrees outside, and the sky is a dark slate blue, like the blackboards were when I was a kid in grade school. Bare tree branches outside my window are claw-like, twisted in the cold, and threatening.

It’s mid-winter. There is no denying it.  It’s been freezing cold and 75% dark for a long time, and it will continue to be relentlessly cold and way too dark  for many weeks. We are in the heart of the beast. Winter. Minnesota. Winter.

And yet.

And yet, somehow, here, right  here, there’s a broad aromatic field of deep green grass, and a small mound of dirt, and an endless clear dome of blue summer sky. Right here. Just over my desk. A few thin wisps of clouds, perhaps. Just passing through.

Because for some of us, there’s no such thing as “the off-season.” Baseball is a year-round thing. I’m not sure why this is, or how this happens. Why baseball? Why me?  Maybe I’ll figure that out sometime. Maybe here. Maybe this year.

A friend of mine has taken on a project – a Year of Dickens. He plans on reading six Dickens novels, one every other month in 2013, (currently 400+ pages into David Copperfield)  and I suggested that he keep a journal about the year. We kicked around a few ideas, as we do — dressing in 18th century British garb, reviving the old sayings, teaching his girls deportment, eating puddings, and such — and developed so much enthusiasm for the project (in that brief ten minute exchange) that I said I wished I was doing something similar. There must be some sort of psychological profile for people who take on weird, year-long projects. We talked about a few other possible writers. Laurence Stern, my friend suggested helpfully. Well, no. Someone else. Philip Roth? Hemingway?

Mentioning Roth reminded me of his Great American Novel, and it suddenly occurred to me that, instead of a particular author, I could do a year of baseball. I have a number of favorite baseball books, fiction and nonfiction, that I could re-read and discuss, along with baseball movies, baseball history, baseball theory.  There’s the real season ahead, looming, for the now hapless Twins. The baseball field is rich with material, more than enough to pursue for a year. Plus, it wouldn’t seem like work. It’s baseball!

I feel a bit guilty calling the site A Year of Baseball, and not starting on January 1. But I’ll get over that. I’m also somewhat concerned that I’m not up to this task. I am not a former ball player (except as a kid on the street corner), nor a sabermatrician, nor a clever and careful writer. And I have a habit of sticking with things longer than I rightfully should. But – what the hell – I think this will be fun to try, and perhaps the game will elevate me. I’ll aim for entertainment and light reading, because I’m fairly certain that I’m not going to be super informative.

And, should this go terribly terribly wrong, well, there’s always the delete button.