Reggie Jackson, Cardboard Gods, and Satchel.
Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game – and do it by watching first some high school or small-town teams. – Jacques Barzun (I used to think this often abridged quote wasn’t really saying anything; that it was just empty words.)
Bios: I’ve read a couple of baseball biographies this year as well as a memoir. I like them as a method of learning or relearning or remembering a particular era. I’ve dabbled in the form myself on a much smaller scale than a book. You may notice on that list one that wasn’t completed; one on Bowie Kuhn. I was reading some Robert Caro a couple of years back and his subject wasn’t necessarily LBJ or Robert Moses. It was power. How to acquire it. How to use it. How to keep it. I was overly ambitious and thought about writing about Kuhn in the same vein and show how not to acquire, use, or keep power. I took copious notes but haven’t much to show for it. A few people asked “Who would buy such a book?” The queries I sent out weren’t promising. I did dash off a couple of pieces at THT that were fruits of my research. But enough about me for the moment.
Dayn Perry’s Reggie Jackson and Josh Wilker’s Cardboard Gods cover an era I wanted to tackle by writing about Bowie Kuhn. And Larry Tye’s Satchel was probably a better history lesson on the Negro Leagues than any book I read where that was the goal.
I was curious how a writer like Perry would tackle a bio. His background as a writer isn’t traditional, to say the least. He wrote for Baseball Prospectus and is sort of FOXsports answer to Rob Neyer.
Perry’s bio of Reggie Jackson was really good. I tried reading the recent bio of Willie Mays, but it didn’t capture my fancy. This one does. I liked it better than the Willie Mays bio by James Hirsch I tried to read earlier. Told Bethlehem Shoals that I found the Mays bio ponderous. 500 pages. I don’t need all that to learn that he might’ve been a good shooting guard or QB instead of a baseball player, but baseball was the only game in town when he was growing up. I didn’t need all that to tell me he could hit, run, field and throw. Or that when he ran, it was like gliding. And that’s the stuff I’m interested in.
Maybe being shorter helps, but Dayn’s book seems to flow well. I did find myself skimming over game accounts, but I usually do that in bios. Dayn was the guy who reminded me to user strong verbs and nouns but he also uses good adjectives. At one point, he said magma hot instead of hot. And his book is subtitled The Life and Thunderous Career of Baseball’s Mr. October. If you’re interested in baseball of the 70s, I recommend the book. It mainly covers his career up to 1981 or so then peters out when it gets around to his Angels career and second tour with the A’s. I learned a bit about Steinbrenner and Martin (and Bowie Kuhn) that I didn’t know. Dayn used Golenbock’s bio of Martin as a source and I never read that*. The book also portrays Jackson as some sort of racial opportunist. That really isn’t a subject I’m all that comfortable about but I’m getting a better understanding of it as time goes on. Oddly enough, I learn more about it from reading about sports than anywhere else.
I also read Cardboard Gods this summer. I’ve praised the blog before. The book had some material that wasn’t part of the blog and was more organized into an overarching story of Wilker’s childhood and other parts of his life. Josh is almost exactly the same age as me, so I relate to a lot of what he wrote. He’s also an inspiration for me, as I believe we’re both sort of late bloomers. Did I mention that he was a fellow Red Sox fan? I loved the chapter on Dewey Evans because Josh refers to this game. That was a crazy 12th inning. I called Doug DeCinces error before Joe Castiglione did. My brother can testify to that in a court of law if need be. That Sox-Angels tilt was one of my favorite games of all time. Amy Tan and Bill Nowlin put together a book of great Red Sox games in history. I nominated that one, but don’t think it got accepted.
Nowlin and I have different ideas about these bios. He’s more into relying an oral history than I am. I prefer to see what the journos have to say about someone at the time. Call it the Bill James influence, if you want. Also, I try to capture the times. I talk on occasion to a friend of mine and he also says that that’s one thing he looks for in a bio. That was a strength of Larry Tye’s book Satchel. It won SABR’s prestigious Seymour Award. I said earlier that I’ve read books specifically on Negro League history, but I think I got a better sense of that history through the prism of Satchel Paige. And a better sense of 20th Century American history to boot. Maybe Jacques Barzun was right after all.
* Golenbock isn’t much of a deep researcher from my experience. He just let’s the tape record stuff then writes it down. But he is one of the main reasons I am into sports history. His book about the Yankees from their Golden Age is probably the first adult baseball book I read,