Sunday Stories: Major League Memoirs #8 – “The Big Bam” by Leigh Montville

6 08 2017

I originally set out to do this post back on February 5th – which was believed to be Babe Ruth’s birthday for a long time (later they found out he was born on 2/6/1895 – a day less than a year earlier than originally believed).  I started the book in mid-January, put it down for a while due to life being hectic, and then picked it back up and finished it in May.  Then more hectic life – finally, I’m doing the post for it today!  

If you count the book about the first All-Star game, Ruth has been the primary subject for half of the 8 baseball books I’ve read over the past 2+ years.  I find his life fascinating, which is probably why I’ve read so many books about his life.

Title/Author/Publisher: “The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth” by Leigh Montville (Random House, 2006, 416 pages)

Description:  There have been a lot of Babe Ruth biographies – and as I mentioned, I’ve read a few.  After reading this one, I still think the one by Robert Creamer is still the definitive one – even though (or maybe because) it was released 43 years ago.

So it may have been a bit overzealous to read this particular book.  And frankly, that probably factored in to why I picked it up and put it down.  But once I dove back in, this was a great book.  To be clear, it doesn’t hide from the fact that there were a lot of previous books released.  It uses the research done on the Bambino, trying to put the pieces together.  And it acknowledges that there was so much about this man’s life that we just don’t know for sure – “the fog sets in”.  We know what Babe Ruth did on the diamond.  But we just don’t know that much about his personal life.  For example, his daughter that he raised with his first wife was clearly not his first wife’s child.  But it does appear that Dorothy was in fact his biological daughter.  The book points this out, and moves on (appropriately) to more important things.

It’s been a while since I finished this book, which isn’t ideal as I would probably be able to give some more nuances if I had been more active on the blog and written this 2.5 months ago when I finished the book.  One thing I distinctly remember is that “The Big Bam” delved into Christy Walsh much more than the other books I’ve read.  Walsh was basically Ruth’s PR man – kind of the first personal PR man in American sports history!

My review:  So all that said, I really enjoyed this book.  Again, if you could read one Babe Ruth book – read Creamer’s.  If you can read two – read this one next.

Other Notable nuggets:  One tidbit I found interesting enough to jot down – near the end of his career, Ruth played against a group of Cuban All-Stars, facing off against Luis Tiant, Sr.  The father of the famous Red Sox pitcher from the 70’s.  I feel like you can’t make this stuff up.

1980 The Franchise Babe Ruth Classic #61

Sunday Stories: Major League Memoirs #7 – “Baseball’s Greatest Series” by Chris Donnelly

17 07 2016

A week from today I’ll be in Cooperstown watching the induction of my childhood icon, Ken Griffey Jr.  So this is going to be Cooperstown week on the blog!  It won’t be a ton of baseball cards this week – I’ll try do some posts relating to my trip or the guys inducted.

If Junior had a book out, like the autobiographies by Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz, I’d have read it for sure.  His dad has one, however, and I did read that one.  Also, Junior’s teammate on the Mariners, Randy Johnson, went into the Hall of Fame with Pedro and Smoltz, but he doesn’t have a book either.  So I found one that discusses The Kid and the Big Unit’s first playoff team.

book cover Baseball's greatest series

Title/Author/Publisher: “Baseball’s Greatest Series: Yankees, Mariners and the 1995 matchup that changed history” by Chris Donnelly (Rutgers University Press, 2010, 347 pages)

To be honest, the title nearly steered me away from this book.  I think it’s a bit of a stretch to call this the game’s greatest series.  I’m generally OK with a little hyperbole, but to say the quarterfinals of Major League Baseball’s 1995 championship “changed history” kind of puts it on the same plane as Bell’s invention of the telephone, Waterloo, or Neil Armstrong landing on the moon.  Could use a little qualifier, like “baseball history” (which is still a little strong), or “the landscape in Seattle”.

Description:  Donnelly starts off taking you through the background.  From the Yankees hiring of Buck Showalter and the waning of Don Mattingly’s career, to the start of baseball in Seattle, the following 2+ decades of futility and the 1989 draft where they almost didn’t pick Ken Griffey Jr.

More than any other theme, but not exclusively, the book tends to look at it through the prism of baseball in Seattle.  The Mariners needed a new Stadium, and at the end of the 1995 season the vote for a new venue to replace the Kingdome was imminent.  If a new park wasn’t built, the Mariners likely would have moved to Tampa Bay.  And in 1995 they didn’t start well.  In last place as late as July 16th, and 13 games back as late as August 3rd, they were sparked by the return of Griffey, who had been out after breaking his wrist in May.  A Cy Young performance by Randy Johnson, a batting title by Edgar Martinez and an epic collapse by the Angels helped them to take the division.  The Yankees secured the Wild Card with a late surge of their own.

Griffey 1995 wall

At this point, Connelly walks you through the series with a chapter devoted to each game.  Because of the strike-shortened season, the road team hosted the first 2 games to minimize travel.  So the Yankees won the first 2 games at home, including a 15-inning thriller in game 2.  But back in Seattle, the Mariners took hard fought games 3 and 4 to set up a winner-take-all game 5.  The crowd in Seattle was raucous and that was on display in game 5 more than ever before.

Though I’d mentioned the title had some hyperbole, this deciding game was nothing less than a classic, as David Cone outdid Andy Benes for 7 innings.  But in the 8th, he ran out of gas, giving up a Griffey homer and walking in a run to leave the score tied 4-4.  Both teams missed opportunities in the 9th, and then brought in their aces Jack McDowell and Randy Johnson, who had pitched 2 days earlier.  The Yankees pieced together a run in the top of the 11th, and it looked bleak for the Mariners.  But Joey Cora bunted his way on and Griffey singled.  Edgar Martinez doubled down the line and Griffey came all the way from first to give the Mariners their first playoff series win.


The book covers the aftermath.  Despite losing to Cleveland in the next round, Seattle had voted for a new ballpark, which kept baseball in the city.  A few years later, the Kingdome was demolished.  And the Yankees stripped apart certain components of their team, firing manager Buck Showalter and making what was considered a questionable hire in Joe Torre.  They would win the World Series in 1996.

My review:  As noted, I was a little slow to getting to this book.  I did eventually read it, however.  And overall, I enjoyed it.  It starts slow, which made it tough at first.  The background and a lot of the part about the season just kind of drags.  The chapters covering the series are the best reading of the book – Donnelly really captures the drama of a 5-game series – describing each inning, and in the higher leverage moments, each pitch.  He gives you background of the dramatis personae in a way that tells the story well.  From young rookie Alex Rodriguez, to Martinez, Griffey, Johnson, Mattingly, Showalter, McDowell, Bernie Williams and Andy Pettitte – there are a number of great careers at an interesting crossroads.

It’s a good book that’s worth a read, particularly for fans of the Mariners.  As a baseball fan, I enjoyed learning more about baseball in Seattle and the play-by-play account of the series.

Other Notable nuggets:  As you can imagine, this book has a lot of great back stories:

  • Jack McDowell was a highly touted signing by the Yankees, and while he had a good 1995 season, he was far from a fan favorite.  He tended to pitch better on the road, and flicked off the fans in New York during a rough stretch in September.  He was traded in the offseason.
  • David Cone, on the other hand, started his much more notable run with the Yankees in the 1995 season.  He almost pitched them to victory in game 5, but he’d go on to pitch a perfect game and earn his 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th championship rings with the club.
  • Every time I read about Edgar Martinez, I realize how underrated he’s been.  The guy was basically the toughest out in the Mariners lineup, and at this point was viewed as the guy to pitch around – even more so than Griffey.  Maybe more important than his series-winning walk-off was his grand slam in the bottom of the 8th that capped a 5-run comeback to move the series to game 5.
  • Griffey was phenomenal, too.  He hit 5 homers – one per game.
  • Tino Martinez and Jay Buhner didn’t have as notable hits as Griffey or Edgar – but both had OPS over 1.000 in the series.  Tino impressed the Yankee brass enough that they signed him in the offseason.
  • Mattingly struck out 3 times in game 3 – but had a great series aside from that.  The Yankee captain went 10 for 24 with 4 doubles and a homer in his last hurrah in the big leagues.  He faced fellow Evansville High graduate Andy Benes in what was the biggest confrontation of either players’ careers.  Mattingly doubled off him to make it 4-2 in game 5.
  • There’s a great note about the last game in the book:
    • “The games’ greatest hitter had just doubled in the game’s greatest player, giving the game’s greatest pitcher the victory”

I always try to pick a card out for any book I’ve read.  The one subset I found was Collector’s Choice, which had postseason highlights.  I could go with the card of Mattingly in this subset, but the Edgar Martinez card seems more appropriate.

1996 UD CC Edgar Martinez 371

Sunday Stories: Major League Memoirs #6 – “Babe: The Legend Comes to Life” by Robert Creamer

14 02 2016

A little less than a year ago I did a bunch of these baseball/culture posts centered around Babe Ruth.  I read one book, by Bill Jenkinson, that detailed the exploits of the Babe’s longballs.  I wanted to read a true biography of the Bambino, and from everything I’d read, the best one was a book by Robert Creamer.  I was a little hesitant, since it was written in 1974.  My general understanding of journalism, research and the types of things associated with these kinds of books is that “the truth” is much more likely to be found in a newer book – even though time has passed.  For instance, the original biography about Ty Cobb painted him an extremely negative light.  It has since been proven to be, at best, sensationalized, and, at worst, fiction.  Yet it influences how Cobb is viewed more than any other publication.

I didn’t find that to be the case here.  I read that this is still the definitive Babe Ruth biography, and I wholeheartedly agree after reading it.  Creamer doesn’t come across as someone who idolized Ruth – he seems to tell it like it is.  It’s a long book, but it’s one of the 2 or 3 best baseball books I’ve ever read.  I finished the book yesterday, in the waiting room of a Mazda dealership.  After being wrapped up in the book for the past few weeks, the last chapter covering Ruth’s death was moving, and I’d probably have needed a tissue if I wasn’t in a public place.

In short, out of the 30-40 baseball books I’ve read in my life, I’d recommend this one over the others.

book cover Babe Legend Comes to Life

Title/Author/Publisher:  “Babe: The Legend Comes to Life” by Robert Creamer (Simon and Schuster, 1974, 468 pages)

Description:  There have been quite a few Babe Ruth biographies – but this one is truly the definitive one.  It’s a long book, over 450 pages.  That makes sense.  Babe packed about as much living as you could imagine into his 55 years (or 56, as the book details, there’s some uncertainty surrounding his birth date).  And Creamer covers it all – from his youth in Baltimore, his pitching days in Boston, his fame as a Yankee and the last few years after his career ended.

This book was written in 1974, when Hank Aaron was busy passing the Bambino on the all-time home run list.  Ruth had been dead for 25 years when this book was written, but it wasn’t so long after his playing days that Creamer couldn’t talk to a number of live participants in story of the Sultan of Swat.  He interviewed numerous teammates, family members, and friends to showcase an honest portrait of Babe’s life on and off the diamond.

Ruth with brother Matthias

Ruth with Brother Matthias

It’s a chronological biography split into two parts:

  • Ruth’s birth in 1894, childhood in Baltimore, and his first days as a major league ballplayer in Boston
  • His 15 years with the Yankees and the time after baseball leading to his death in 1948

My review:

Sports Illustrated has called this the best sports biography ever written, and I won’t argue with them.  Babe was larger than life, and the book really shows that.  As a third person biography, it describes the facts Creamer had meticulously gathered.  But it still allows you to feel like you can understand Ruth’s perspective.  It also shows how much of an icon he was – his impact on society in the time after World War I to the beginning of the Great Depression.  The book is written with the right level of skepticism for the legends Ruth left behind, and also with a tinge of awe that’s appropriate for a man who many consider the greatest sportsman of all-time.

There’s a lot of detail, from his time at St. Mary’s school in Baltimore where Brother Matthias oversaw the Babe as he learned how to make shirts.  In case the baseball thing didn’t work out.  There are some great anecdotes; like the first time he saw an elevator when he paid the attendant to take it up and down over and over again.  Or in game 1 of the 1918 World Series when the Red Sox claimed Ruth wouldn’t start game 1, sent Bullet Joe Bush out for warm ups, and then brought the Babe on anyway.  Or how Christy Walsh became the Babe’s publicist by pretending to be a beer delivery man.

Other Notable nuggets:

Creamer also does a great job describing what was going on in the world of Major League Baseball at the time – you can see how the politics and business of the game influenced Ruth’s career.  I found the contract negotiations – between Babe and his owners, or his owners and potential trade partners – to be incredibly interesting.

  • Jack Dunn, who originally signed Ruth out of St. Mary’s for the minor league Orioles, wanted to keep him as long as possible.  The minor leagues weren’t as directly subservient to the majors as they are today.  The AL or NL could draft a player in the offseason from an International League team like the Orioles.  But it was better business to sell him midseason for a substantial sum.  In 1914, Dunn signed Ruth and the Orioles were leading the International League for the first half of the season.  But the Federal League, a third major league, had just started up.  Since there was a Baltimore team in the FL, Dunn couldn’t draw effectively and had to sell all of his ballplayers.  He held on to Ruth for the longest time.  Ruth played a month or so with the Red Sox that year, but was rented to their farm team, the Providence Grays, and he naturally led them to the International League pennant over, among other teams, his former Baltimore Orioles.
  • Ruth almost left for a shipyard team in the middle of 1918, as many players were defecting to war-appropriate occupations, where they would just play baseball for the shipyard, stockyard, etc., instead of for the American or National League.
  • Ruth tried to get a cut of the money the Yankees sent to Harry Frazee when Boston’s owner sold him to New York.
  • Ruth defied baseball’s rules and went barnstorming after the 1921 season, and the new commissioner Judge Landis was forced to suspend him and Bob Meusel for the first month of the following season.  Landis actually pushed to have the rules changed the following year so players from the World Series teams could barnstorm.
  • Babe Ruth StoryEvery time his contract came up, Ruth would have a relatively friendly standoff with Jake Ruppert, the Yankee owner.  One of these standoffs is what led to the most famous quote attributed to him.  Ruth was asked if it made sense for him to make more than U.S. President Herbert Hoover. He responded “Why not?  I had a better year.”
  • Creamer goes into detail of the sale to the Braves and the contract Babe believed would lead him to become the Braves’ manager.  He never did get to manage a game in the Majors.

Like I said above, this was probably the best baseball book I’ve ever read.  Certainly in the top 2 or 3.  It’s worth a read – Ruth is still the most fascinating, and probably the greatest, baseball player of all-time.

For a card to go with this book – I’m going with the 1992 MegaCards set of Babe Ruth.  This took pictures of the Babe from the Conlon Collection of photographs.  Card #14 has the photo that Creamer used on the original hardcover version of his book released in 1974.

1992 MegaCards Ruth 1922 year

Sunday Stories: Major League Memoirs #5 – “Big Red” by Ken Griffey and Phil Pepe

10 01 2016

Last year I read a couple of books about the current class of Hall of Famers.  I finished autobiographies about Pedro Martinez, and John Smoltz.  Craig Biggio and Randy Johnson don’t have autobiographies, but I have found books that I could read about them.  But in anticipation of Ken Griffey Jr’s HOF induction, I decided to read his father’s autobiography.  Senior wrote a book in 2014 about his life and career.  As a Reds fan, it was a great read!

book cover Griffey sr

Title/Author/Publisher: “Big Red: Baseball, Fatherhood, and My Life in the Big Red Machine” by Ken Griffey and Phil Pepe (Triumph Books, 2014, 224 pages)

Unfortunately, Pepe passed away about a month ago.  He had a Hall of Fame vote, and did turn it in – I’m guessing he’s one of the 437 voters who checked the box next to Griffey’s son, making Junior the recipient of the highest percentage vote in history.

Description:  This book was more like the Martinez book I read, in that it’s a classic beginnings-to-today autobiography.  He starts with his days in Donora, a steel mill town in Western Pennsylvania.  He was born 2 years after the worst pollution disaster in U.S. history, and his father left his family shortly after his birth.  He grew up as a high school football star who played baseball when the weather allowed it.

He covers his time in the minors and his rise to the big leagues, along with George Foster, as the final piece to the Big Red Machine.  A large part of the book covers the 70’s in Cincinnati, when the Reds won back-to-back World Series behind the “Big Four” and skipper Sparky Anderson.  Griffey also covers his time with the Yankees, where he mentored Don Mattingly, had trouble getting along with the irascible Billy Martin, and played under “the Boss” George Steinbrenner.  All along this time, he gives anecdotes of his time raising a future Hall-of-Famer.  He finishes up with his brief return to Cincinnati, which led to his trade to Seattle.  That led to a baseball first – Junior and Senior Griffey playing together in the same outfield, and one memorable night in September 1990 when they hit back-to-back homers.

My review:  The last few biographies I’ve read have been MLB Hall of Famers, but that’s not the case with Griffey, Sr.  However, that doesn’t mean he isn’t an interesting guy for this type of book.  On the contrary, Griffey’s career may be as interesting as any Hall of Famer because of the paths he crossed.

  • As a young high school star, he knew Donora’s famous son, all-timer Stan Musial.  Musial played high school basketball with Griffey’s dad.
  • He started his days as the youngest member of the “Great Eight” – the Big Red Machine – playing for Sparky and alongside Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez.
  • After the Machine was dismantled, he played with Tom Seaver and earned an All-Star Game MVP in 1980.
  • In New York, he was viewed by the Boss as the replacement for Reggie Jackson.  He played for the Steinbrenner managerial carousel, which included Bob Lemon, Gene Michael, Clyde King, Billy Martin (twice), Yogi Berra, and Lou Piniella.
  • While in the Bronx, he actually kept Donnie Baseball in the outfield as a rookie because they thought enough of his skills at first base – even though he had never played the position.  He played alongside Dave Winfield and Rickey Henderson while there.
  • He spent a couple of seasons in Atlanta, where he played with Glavine and Smoltz before they became Glavine and Smoltz.
  • He went back to Cincy (again playing for Piniella) and has a World Series ring for the Wire-to-Wire Reds.  There he was teammates with Barry Larkin, Paul O’Neill and Eric Davis.
  • Midway through the ’90 season, he was traded to Seattle, where he got to play with his son, Randy Johnson and Edgar Martinez.
  • And he’s coached in the Reds organization for most of his post-playing days.

Needless to say, that’s some serious connections.  He’s played alongside 14 Hall-of-Famers (and Pete Rose), and played for 3 more (and Pete Rose).  That was what struck me most about the book.  He started with Stan the Man, and ended with the Kid.  And gave some really cool perspective along the way.  He confirmed why Junior would never have signed with the Yankees – Billy Martin treated Ken Jr. and Craig poorly when they played in the clubhouse).  He gave his perspective on Pete Rose’s banishment – he thinks Rose should be in the Hall but acknowledges the severity of Pete’s transgressions.  He gives some unique insight into the Big Red Machine days; the most interesting thing in the book to me was that he didn’t particularly like Sparky Anderson for a lot of his playing career.

The best part of the book, however, is when he discusses his son.  Throwing baseballs in the backyard, taking Pete Rose Jr. out as a kid, his sons hitting in Yankee Stadium batting cages, and Junior getting drafted first overall.  The last part of the book talks about their first day playing together and culminates with the day the two hit back-to-back homers.  At the end of the day, baseball is about fathers and sons more than anything else.

Griffey Jr Sr pic

Big Red is a good book for any baseball fan.  As a Reds and Ken Griffey Jr. fan – it was a great book.

Other Notable nuggets:  As you can imagine, this book has a lot of great stories:

  • As I mentioned, the fact that he didn’t have a good relationship with Sparky Anderson was surprising to me.  I guess I assumed it was all hunky-dory in the Reds’ clubhouse.  But from the book, Sparky treated the Big Four differently from everyone else (which is somewhat reasonable).  It’s not that Griffey and Sparky had a contentious relationship – it sounds like they just didn’t talk much.  Sparky just didn’t trust him since he was the youngest.  Griffey is sure to point out that he respected Anderson’s baseball knowledge; it just sounds like they didn’t develop much of a relationship until after retirement.
  • There’s a great story about Pedro Borbon in the 1973 NLCS.   In Game 3, the Reds were getting blown out and a brawl erupted.  Pedro Borbon and Buzz Capra were right in the middle of it, and it ended with Borbon walking off the field with a Mets’ cap.
  • I think I knew this but didn’t really remember it.  Griffey was smack dab in the middle of the Big Red Machine’s first World Series victory.  Griffey scored the tying and go-ahead run in game 7 of the 1975 Series.
  • I didn’t realize how close he was to winning a batting title.  He had the lead on Bill Madlock going into the last day of the 1976 season only to give it up when Madlock went 4 for 4.
  • After the 1978 season the Reds went on an exhibition tour in Japan, and Griffey got to play against Japanese legend Sadaharu Oh.  Strangely, Sparky was fired shortly after that trip.  Griffey said GM Dick Wagner was asking the players about Sparky on the trip.
  • There are a few funny stories with George Steinbrenner.  Rickey Henderson had made a mistake in the outfield, with Griffey backing him up.  After the game, Yogi Berra came up to Griffey and told him he needed to come in to take extra ground balls in the outfield.  Griffey asked why – he wasn’t the one who made a mistake.  Yogi’s response – “George wants you to do that because he can’t tell Rickey”.
  • In 1986, Griffey was frustrated with how Piniella was playing him and actually skipped a game.  I’d never heard that, and the world would go nuts if somebody did that today.  That got him traded to the Braves.
  • Senior actually played respectably in 1990 once he was traded to Seattle.  He thought he had a few more years in his body, but he got in a car accident in Spring Training of 1991.  He played for about a month, but the accident effectively ended his career.

There isn’t a card directly involved with this book, so I’ll go with the one card I know of with the whole Griffey family.  Craig was a prospect in the Seattle farm system who topped out at AAA baseball.  All 3 of them are shown here on the 1992 Upper Deck Bloodlines subset.

1992 UD Griffey bloodlines

Sunday Stories: Major League Memoirs #4 – “Starting and Closing” by John Smoltz with Don Yaeger

11 10 2015

I read a book about Pedro Martinez, around the time of his induction, and last month I finished a book about another one of this year’s Hall of Fame inductees.  Interestingly enough, both Pedro and John Smoltz can be found regularly on the TV for those of us who watch the MLB postseason (and if you’re reading this blog, I’m assuming that’s you).

Smoltz book cover

Title/Author/Publisher: “Starting and Closing: Perseverance, Faith, and One More Year” by John Smoltz with Don Yaeger (William Morrow, 2012, 304 pages)

Description:  Unlike Pedro’s book, which was a classic beginnings-to-today autobiography, Smoltz focused more on the least covered aspect of his career, the only year he didn’t pitch with the Atlanta Braves.  After going from starting to closing and back, Smoltz is forced to end his 2008 season with major shoulder surgery.  As a 41 year-old with a lot of miles on his arm, the Braves were unwilling to bet on him.  He covers the road back in 2009, which went from rehabbing with the Red Sox, then getting cut after poor results.  But he caught on with St. Louis and ended his career on a fairly positive note with one last postseason appearance.

Despite what Smoltz claims a few times in the book, it is still an autobiography.  He uses the final season as the main construct of the book.  But he does cover his entire career from early to end in the process.  Early in the book he covers how he got interested in baseball as a youngster, then moves to why he decided at the last-minute to forego college and sign with the Tigers.  And of course there are plenty of stories about his days with the Braves, from game 7 of the 1991 World Series, their lone title in 1995 and his days golfing with the pitching staff.  He does always bring it back to how his approach and outlook helped him get through the difficulty of 2009.

My review:  The way it’s reviewed and advertised, I got the impression that Smoltz was intending this to be a self-help book.  That made me a little wary bit before starting it.  It has some elements like that, but it does cover his whole career while partially pulling back the curtain – but not fully.  The book intertwines his career with his struggles to come back in his final season.  In 2009, Smoltz came back from shoulder surgery and the Braves were ready to move on – so he signed with Boston and, after the Red Sox released him, with St. Louis.  Since that’s the premise, the book doesn’t spend as much time on some of the bigger moments of his career.  I would have liked to hear a bit more on his perspective in the 1991 World Series Game 7 or the 1995 or 1996 series.  The discussion is there – but not in a ton of detail

There are a bunch of interesting anecdotes, and Smoltz covers stories from off the field as much as anything else.  I liked this.  He described one of his first seasons with the Braves, when Ted Simmons told him that he needed to find a hobby outside of baseball.  For Smoltz, it was golf.  When he went to a new city, he had a little black book – of the best golf courses and who to call to get out.  There are quite a few stories of he, Maddux, Glavine and a few other pitchers while out on the course.  He’s since become a scratch golfer who has played in a few professional tournaments with some results left to be desired.  He hopes to make the senior tour, and given his track record of success, I wouldn’t bet against him.

Smoltz golf

Other Notable nuggets:  This book has quite a few, including the golf stories I mentioned.

  • In his early years, his family wanted to be an accordion player.  I had heard this, but didn’t appreciate how serious his family was until I read the book.  As a 7-year old, he “decided” he was going to be a baseball player – and unlike me, he made good on that claim.
  • He covered the supposed “incident” where a local reporter wrote a story that he had tried to iron his shirt while it was still on.  Smoltz refuted it – he got burned by hot water from an iron (which is a big difference), and described how the writer just listened to some locker room banter and basically did some irresponsible reporting.
  • He almost went to Michigan State to pitch and play basketball for Judd Heathcote.  But after a successful run for Team USA in the junior Olympics, his hometown Tigers drafted him and he signed about a week before he was scheduled to head to East Lansing.
  • Throughout the book, there are signs of how competent the Atlanta organization had become.  Initially depressed after his hometown Tigers traded him, Smoltz realized in his first season with the Braves minor leagues how much better the pitching instruction was.  So there was a reason they had that 15 year run of dominance.
  • Closing was his idea as a way to get back to the team after Tommy John surgery.  He didn’t expect it to last past that season, much less for 3+ years.  But it’s the closing that probably put him over the top as a first ballot Hall of Famer.
  • In his first ever round of golf, Smoltz notched a birdie on his 5th hole.  The guy’s a natural.  He’s never shot over 100 in his life, and rarely ever over 90.

There isn’t really a baseball card connection with this book.  I’m thinking of getting a set together for each book I’ve read – and for this one I’d probably go with his 2010 Upper Deck Season Biography because it covers his start with the Cardinals.  It goes with the theme of the book.

2010 UD Season Biography John Smoltz

Sunday Stories: Major League Memoirs #3 – “Pedro” by Pedro Martinez & Michael Silverman

9 08 2015

I was hoping to post about this book a couple of weeks ago to kind of coincide with the Hall of Fame induction ceremony.  Well, I didn’t watch the induction ceremony live (though I did DVR it), and I hadn’t finished the book yet either.  

I have since finished doing both of those things.  The speech Pedro Martinez gave at the Hall of Fame was awesome, as was the suit he wore.  He gave the last speech, and his overall joy at getting inducted really kept you interested in what could have otherwise been a long event. 

Pedro book cover

Title/Author/Publisher: “Pedro” by Pedro Martinez and Michael Silverman (Houghton Mifflin, 2015, 336 pages)

Description:  Pedro’s autobiography, co-written by Michael Silverman, gives Pedro’s account of his life in baseball.  That’s an important distinction – it’s very much about his baseball career and very little about his personal life.  He gives some background about how he grew up, and how the death of his father impacted him – but any piece of his personal life is almost always done to give context to his baseball career (personally, that’s how I want it).

Pedro starts with his days in the DR, from how his older brother Ramon helped him learn baseball to the days when Dodger scouts in the Dominican academy thought Pedro was too small and frail in comparison to the phenom Ramon.  He covers his ascent through the Dodger Minor League organization, facing the same kind of questions.

At each stop along the way, Pedro usually had 1 or 2 people who really believed in him.  They saw the heart of a lion that overcame his small stature and eventually led him to fly past his peers (including his older brother) on the way to the Hall of Fame.  Martinez pays homage to those influences and discusses his feelings as he made his way from a scrawny 16-year old in the DR to an aged veteran signed to help the Phillies to the 2009 World Series.  He also gives his side of the story to events like the day Grady Little left him in for Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, the brawl in Fenway earlier in that series where he sidestepped Don Zimmer, his relationship with Curt Schilling, and the reasons behind his move from Montreal to Boston and Boston to the Mets.

My review:  In short, this book was phenomenal.  I’ve never liked the Red Sox, so when Pedro was atop the baseball world I wasn’t a fan of him.  But when he came back to pitch for Philadelphia at the end of the 2009 season, I was paying more attention.  And he’s been on MLB Network and some playoff broadcasts since then, and his gregarious personality has made it hard not to like him.  This book is no different.

I like the focus of the book – he really keeps it on baseball.  There are snippets of his personal life.  He starts off describing his “la finca” (home) today, in Manoguayabo, and how he can look up a hill and see the mango tree outside of the shack he lived in as a youngster.  Anecdotes about, like Pedro’s first flight to America. He was almost late because he couldn’t find someone who knew how to knot a tie.  He talked about late in his career, how he his impoverished beginnings and how the death of his dad sapped his desire to pitch toward the end of his career.  But it’s always in a baseball context (he hardly talks about his own children and wife at all), and the privacy he kept as a player mostly remains in the book.  For a guy like Babe Ruth or even Mickey Mantle – I might want something different.  But for Pedro this is perfect.

He really delves into it.  He talks about his strategy against hitters, how he pitched inside to establish that part of the plate and how he stuck up for his teammates by hitting opposing players as retaliation.  Much of baseball didn’t like this, and he discusses the controversies that ensued.  I also really liked his perspective when he was in contract negotiations.  It all gives great insight into Pedro’s mindset.  In short, he’s an ultimate competitor who seems a lot like Michael Jordan to me – he wasn’t the most talented guy out there but his belief in himself drove him to success.  And he really remembers the detractors.  He remembers the Dodgers keeping him as a reliever and then trading him – he felt that they turned their back on him.  But he also remembers the guys who spoke up for him when his career was more of a question mark.  Guys like Eleodoro Arias, who sensed the fearlessness was an incredible quality for this 130 pound 16 year-old.

He is also a jovial, fun-loving guy; that really comes out in the book and you can see it now that he’s giving his opinions on TV.  It really came out in his Hall of Fame speech, too.  It’s easy to like the guy after reading this book.

Pedro Marichal flag at BB HOF

Other Notable nuggets:  This book has many.  They’re all form Pedro’s perspective, naturally.  So you have to take that with a grain of salt, but like I said, I loved the book!

  • In his first year in America, Sandy Koufax became an early mentor to him at Dodger spring training.  Koufax taught him how to toe the rubber, a strategy that gave him a few more miles on his fastball and that he used the rest of his career.  Later, Pedro showed that trick to Curt Schilling and it helped him add a few miles to his fastball.  However he also believes it led to Curt’s “bloody sock” injury.
  • Similarly, Don Drysdale realized Pedro was tipping pitches and showed him how – the day before Drysdale unfortunately passed away.  Pedro pays a small bit of homage to him in the book.
  • Pedro’s career started with Raul Mondesi as his minor league teammate on a few stops along the way.  Pedro’s attitude as focused and an ultra competitor was a foil to that of Mondesi.
  • In September 1990, Pedro’s minor league season ended and he went to LA to see his brother Ramon pitch.  After the game, there was an autograph session and a silent auction.  He saw a Reggie Jackson signed ball for $250 and paid all he had for it.  Later, his brother Ramon chided him, saying he could have met Mr. October and gotten a ball for free if he had just asked!
  • The biggest success of Pedro’s career was when he came out of the bullpen in the deciding game of 1999 ALDS.  Injured and unable to throw his fastball, he came in and shut down the highest scoring offense of the past 70 years without a hit over 6 innings.  At some point, Scott Hatteberg was talking about the bonus money they’d get if they won the game.  When Pedro got back from his first inning of work, Hatteberg proclaimed “I’m going to get that shed I want”.

Finally – there is a baseball card connection with this book!  In the middle of the book, there are a number of pictures of Pedro – from his life in the Dominican Republic to all the stops of his baseball career.  There is one baseball card in these pictures – it’s his 1995 Pinnacle card when he was with the Expos.  I’ve written out the caption in the book below.  Honestly, I miss the days when baseball cards had pictures like this.

1995 Pinnacle Pedro Martinez

Life was sweet with the Expos.

Sunday Stories: Major League Memoirs #2 – “The Day All the Stars Came Out” by Lew Freedman

19 07 2015

In honor of the fact that I was going to the All-Star Game in Cincinnati this year, I read a book about the first All-Star game.  I knew a few things about it already – that it happened in 1933 and that an aging Babe Ruth hit a 2-run homer.  But that was about it.  This was a great read, in part because of the personal fact I was going to this year’s version of the Midsummer Classic.  But in general this was just a really good book.  It was fun going to the game after reading this book – I remember walking into Great American Ballpark and thinking “This is the same tradition that started back in Chicago in 1933 with a Babe Ruth home run”.

I’m calling these posts “Sunday Stories: Major League Memoirs”.  This is the second book I’ve covered.  The first was a chronicle of the home run exploits of Babe Ruth.  So Ruth has played a big part in both posts so far!

The Day All the Stars Came Out Lew Freedman

Title/Author/Publisher: “TheDay all the Stars Came Out: MLB’s First All-Star Game” by Lew Freedman (McFarland, 2010, 231 pages)

Description:  The book is a beginning-to-end narrative of how MLB’s first All-Star Game came to be and then played out.  The game was originally conceived by Arch Ward, the sports editor of the Chicago Tribune.  His boss and owner of the Tribune, Colonel Robert McCormick, asked him to put together a sporting exhibition as part of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.


At the time, this was viewed as a one-time deal, dubbed the “Game of the Century” by Ward.  The game was such a success – despite being played in the midst of the Great Depression – that it soon became an annual rite of summer.  Freedman’s book describes the game through the game’s conceptualization and build-up, then covers the playing of the game itself and the impact it would have on the sports world in the future.  Freedman ends with a chapter detailing the accomplishments and the “where did the end up” of each of the players and managers involved.

My review:  Overall, this was just a great book.  It was a fast read, without a single part that seemed to drag.  The first part of the book discusses how the All-Star game came to be – and it really trumpets Arch Ward as the driving force behind the creation of the idea.  The book describes everything from how he got baseball’s power players involved to the fact that he offered up his annual salary if the game wasn’t a financial success.  Ward basically put his career on the line – and then spent the 2 months between May (when the event was greenlit) to July (when it was played) doing everything he could to promote it.   Despite the fact that an All-Star game is obviously about the players – I would say Ward was the star of this book.  Freedman really shows not only how instrumental Ward was in making this first game a success.

He does cover the players, though, and does so in an interesting fashion.  Each inning of the game gets its own chapter, and Freedman covers every single player who played in the game.  He weaves their backgrounds into their current place at the bat or on the mound in the All-Star Game.  For example, when covering the at bats for Bill Terry (the NL’s starting 1B and the NY Giants’ manager in 1933), Freedman covers the relationship between “Memphis Bill” and his former skipper John McGraw (who was honored with the manager spot for the NL).

1933 AS game Babe Ruth homer

Ruth was the star of this game – he hit a 2-run homer to pace the Americans’ victory, and he made an 8th inning catch to stifle a National League rally.  And while Ruth was important, he doesn’t really get any more coverage in the book than any other of the All-Stars.   In fact, Freedman covers Ruth’s homer in a great chapter.  But as opposed to spending 10 pages recapping the Babe’s exploits, he covers the homer from the perspective of the bat boy John McBride.

The book finishes up with a look at the Negro League All-Star game that followed shortly after MLB’s “Game of the Century”.  This was a cool feature, and it made me want to read the book that’s out there about that event.  Finally, the book spends a chapter covering the rest of Arch Ward’s career, and another full chapter covering what each of the players and managers did after that game.  This doesn’t just mean their baseball career – Freedman covers where the players lived and died after their career.  He goes in order of their death, and it’s a cool touch to finish up the book.

Other Notable nuggets:  This book has so many things that I just didn’t know.  But it’s not just stuff about the more famous guys like Ruth, Gehrig, or McGraw.  Here’s a few of them.

  • I knew about the 1911 benefit game to help the family of Addie Joss after his untimely death.  That game was a collection of AL All-Stars playing against his old team, the Cleveland Naps (now the Indians).  But I didn’t know about the All-Star barnstorming tour that Joss actually played on as a rookie in 1902.  The book covered this in one of the early chapters, discussing how Win Mercer killed himself after ostensibly gambling away his fellow players’ proceeds from the trip.
  • FC Lane, a writer for Baseball Magazine, had championed the idea of an All-Star Series nearly 2 decades earlier.
  • The Chicago World’s Fair of 1933 was a similar scale event as the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893.  The 1933 Fair introduced us to the All-Star game, but the 1893 version also produced another baseball staple – Cracker Jack!
  • The book covers the unique relationship between Terry and McGraw, which began as extremely contentious before morphing into a situation where McGraw recommended Terry as his replacement.  It also covers the relationship between Jimmy dykes and AL manager Connie Mack.  Mack had been forced to sell Dykes to the White Sox the year before, but the two had a great rapport and Mack taught him well enough for Dykes to become a manager for over two decades himself.  Like Terry and McGraw – Dykes wound up replacing his mentor when Mack retired in 1950.
  • It’s all too common for today’s athletes to be tattooed to the gills.  But one pitcher on the 1933 team, Al “General” Crowder was notable for having enough tattoos to be called a “human picture gallery”.
  • The NL and AL used different balls back then (they actually did so until 2000).  Like the selection of Comiskey Park over Wrigley Field, this was a point of contention.  The umpires switched balls mid-way through the game, after the top of the 4th.
  • The 2nd All-Star game was played in the Polo Grounds in 1934.  It had a national fair tie-in as well – for 300 years of New York sports.
  • Ward was offered the role of NFL commissioner, but turned it down to stay at the Tribune.  He later helped form a competitor of the NFL – the AAFC.  He also created the annual Chicago All-Star Football Classic.
AL Roster

AL Roster

NL Roster

NL Roster


Sunday Stories: Major League Memoirs #1 – “The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs” by Bill Jenkinson

10 05 2015

To wrap up Babe Ruth week, I’m doing my first post about a book I read.  If you’ve read any of these – you know I love alliteration, and I’ve decided I’ll call these “Sunday Stories: Major League Memoirs”.  The first “Sunday Stories” is a book that looked into the amazing exploits of Babe Ruth.  I’ve read quite a few baseball books in my day, but I’d always wanted to read this one when it came out.

The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs

Title/Author/Publisher: “The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs: Re-crowning Baseball’s Greatest Slugger” by Bill Jenkinson (Carrol & Graf, 2007, 432 pages)

Description:  There have been quite a few Babe Ruth biographies – books that delve as much into the Babe’s personal life as his baseball career.  This isn’t one of those.  The book is written to delve deeply into the home run exploits of the Bambino, and then consider how he might fare in today’s baseball world.  Jenkinson takes a look at Babe’s career on a season-by-season basis, noting every competitive home run he hit.  This obviously includes the 730 official MLB homers (714 regular season, 15 World Series, 1 All-Star game).  But Jenkinson also delves deeply into what he calls Babe Ruth’s “hidden career”, which consists of games played as part of spring training, pre-season MLB touring, in-season exhibition games and post-season barnstorming.

The book is the culmination of 30 years of the author’s research, and in the latter half he considers factors about how Ruth would do in today’s game.  Despite the fact that his records have all been broken, Ruth is widely considered the greatest slugger of all-time.  But Jenkinson hypothesizes that, if Ruth played in today’s game, his deeds would be significantly more impressive.  He does a comparison of the difficulties Ruth faced against the difficulties faced by today’s hitters.  He then combines that with a lifetime’s amount of research on the career of the Sultan of Swat.  He also adds a detailed “what-if” analysis of how many homers Ruth would have hit in today’s modern ballparks.  He credits Ruth with over 1,100 homers if his fly balls had come in today’s game, and a whopping 104 in Ruth’s incredible 1921 season.

My review:  I’ll give my “review” portion by walking through the author’s organization of the book.  I’m not sure if I’ll do this on future reads, but it works for this book.  First off, I’ll point out that this book isn’t for everyone – it’s definitely geared for baseball history nuts like me.

“The Career.”  Jenkinson starts off by covering each and ever season of Ruth’s career in a good amount of detail; this takes over one-third of the book.  He does this from a “home run perspective” – pointing out when Ruth hit home runs or long drives, where he hit them.  He tells stories along the way – but those stories focus less on where Ruth went and more on the details behind his ball-playing.  I found this interesting, but this part of the book is anything but a quick read.

“Analysis”.  The book’s second section starts off looking at Ruth’s “hidden career” I mentioned above.  This was probably my favorite part of the book.  I knew Ruth tended to barnstorm after each season – he was famously suspended in 1922 for doing so.  But I didn’t know the extent of his “off-the-grid” games.  If the Yankees had an off-day, they scheduled an exhibition game.  So while Ruth played in days where MLB scheduled 8 less regular season games than they do today, he would play as many as 180 games in between April and September.  This book does a phenomenal job walking you through this and discussing the impact it may have had on Ruth.

The next chapter (Power Incarnate) talks through why Ruth was so powerful.  And though he doesn’t really come up with any conclusions, Jenkinson brings forth a very interesting theory.  Basically, he thinks that Ruth’s “human nature” was the biggest factor of differentiating him from other baseball greats.  I think he’s probably right – and he points to two World Series as being indicative of this.  The first is in 1926, when Ruth was caught stealing for the last out of the series; the second is in 1932, when Ruth allegedly “called his shot”.

Ruth Hornsby 1926 series

Next, Jenkinson goes into lengthy detail comparing the difficulty in hitting home runs in today’s game versus doing so in the 1920’s and 30’s.  He discusses caliber of competition, ballpark size, logistics (travel, exhibition games, etc.), equipment, training & medical care, pitching strategy, and rule changes.  Jenkinson concludes that competition was about equal for Ruth, but in every instance, he concludes that things were harder for Ruth.  I think a bias he exhibits throughout the book shows most strongly here.  I just don’t agree with his conclusions on the caliber of competition and pitching strategy based on what I know about the evolution of baseball.  That said, this book did enlighten me on some of the other areas, such as how much bigger the ballparks of Ruth’s time were.  Yes, Yankee Stadium was tiny down the right field line – but it and just about every other park were cavernous everywhere else.  Also, this book walks through how poor training and medical care was for Ruth’s – and how it probably cost him a few good years toward the end of his career.

Ultimately, the book concludes that you could drop Ruth into today’s baseball world and he wouldn’t only be as good as he was in the 1920’s – he’d be much better.  As I mentioned, there are a few conclusions above I don’t agree with, and while I’m not completely on board with him on this, the book did a good job of convincing me.

“The Facts” Last, the book gives a number of details about Ruth’s home runs and Jenkinson’s “what-if” projections.  There are two really cool areas here.  First, there is a section with Ruth’s “spray charts”.  This shows the approximate landing spot of every home run or long fly ball that Ruth hit, with a comparison line for the “average modern park”.  Again, this shows the meticulous nature of Jenkinson’s research.  The second is an aerial picture of the 10 parks Ruth played in the most during his career (Polo Grounds, Yankee Stadium, Fenway, Braves Field, and the 6 other American League parks), along with arrows depicting the Sultan’s most prodigious swats.

2014 Stadium Club Ruth

Other Notable nuggets:  This book is filled with them.  It’s probably the best part about the book, and there are many worthy of mentioning.  I picked 5.

  • In June, 1928, Ruth hit a drive into the deepest part of Yankee Stadium that landed 460 feet away just outside of Goose Goslin’s reach.  Leo Durocher had been on first base, and after 3 relay throws, Durocher had scored but Ruth was tagged out trying to stretch a triple into a home run.  This highlights the difference between the parks of Ruth’s day and those of today – that type of play just wouldn’t exist in today’s game.
  • The book doesn’t have anything in terms of off-field anecdotes regarding Ruth’s personality.  But it does have quite a few on the field, like in the 1928 World Series when Cardinals fans were upset when a call didn’t go their way and Ruth blasted the next pitch with a homer.  When Ruth went out to his spot in left field, the fans were throwing soda bottles and other trash at him.  Ruth turned the other cheek, grabbing one and taking a swig as if he was getting refreshment.  It diffused the situation, and highlighted Ruth’s quick thinking and affable demeanor.
  • Jenkinson believes (and given his expertise – I’d tend to believe him), that the longest homer in MLB history came off Ruth’s bat on July 18, 1921.  The blast came off the Tigers’ Bert Cole at Navin Field, and he estimates it at 575 feet.
  • Jenkinson also thinks there’s a good amount of evidence that Ruth hit a 600-foot homer in an exhibition game at Kirby Park in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in October 1926.  He spends a good amount of time discussing his research on this homer; this particular section is indicative of the exhaustive effort that went in to writing this book.
  • In 1942, Ruth participated in a batting exhibition against Walter Johnson.  This was 15 years after the Big Train had retired and 8 years after Ruth had left the Yankees.  But the Babe still smashed a few of Johnson’s pitches into the Yankee Stadium bleachers.  I’d never heard about this – but you can find it on YouTube.

Overall, this was a good book to read.  It’s not a page turner, (it took me about a month to finish), so it’s not the most fun I’ve had reading a book.  That’s mostly the nature of what the author is trying to accomplish, however.  And like I said, I’m a baseball history nerd, and there are things I loved about this book and will probably go back and look up next time I’m trying to remember something interesting about baseball’s biggest icon.

One card I thought went well with this book is the Moonshots card from 2012 Gypsy Queen.  It’s the one card I know of that details a specific blast from Ruth’s career – the Tiger Stadium blast outlined above.

2012 Gypsy Moonshots Ruth