Category Archives: Book reviews

Book review: Tales from the Deadball Era, by Mark Halfon

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I recently was reading a book about writing that said all writers should read. Reading any book, the writing book claimed, would offer at least one anecdote a writer could use in their own work, with appropriate attribution of course.

Mark Halfon’s Tales from the Deadball Era, which I’m currently reading, is filled with these sort of anecdotes. I suspect it will be a reference point for future posts here.

Already, this book motivated me to update a recent post where I said disgraced Deadball Era first baseman Hal Chase was banned for life from baseball for throwing games. In fact, as Halfon explains in his first chapter, “Big League Cheating,” National League president John Heydler inexplicably cleared Chase of wrongdoing after a hearing and Chase voluntarily left the majors following the 1919 season, retiring in good standing.

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Earlier today, the book gave me something else. A person on Twitter shared the photo at right, saying it was Honus Wagner batting with Roger Bresnahan catching in 1908. This would be an unusual photo as the Dutchman generally hit right. Major League Baseball historian and one of my mentors John Thorn voiced his skepticism at the photo, saying it was likely of Claude Ritchey.

However, as Halfon pointed out, Bresnahan did not debut the catchers mask until 1908, a year after he introduced shin guards. And Ritchey last played for the Pirates in 1906. So while the photo might not be Wagner– his side profile isn’t convincing, for me at least– it’s not clear who it would be in his place. Thorn suggested that some people think it’s Owen Wilson.

I don’t know if the best thing I can say about a book is that it allows one to upstage their mentor. So I’ll add that what I’ve read so far of Halfon’s work has been both educational and entertaining. It’s a shame there wasn’t better technology 100 years ago to document this rollicking era of baseball history, which mostly gets forgotten today. [Just ask the average fan about Eddie Collins or Tris Speaker.] I’m glad that researchers and writers like Halfon, by day a philosophy professor at Nassau Community College in New York, are willing to offer a renewed look.

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Four years ago, I promised to review any book sent to me. I now have a 30-book backlog. This series will run every other Thursday until the backlog has cleared.

First review, two weeks ago: 1954, by Bill Madden

Book review: 1954, by Bill Madden

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In previewing my new book review series last week, I promised I’d review one book per week. It was an ambitious goal and in reading the first book this past week for my new series, 1954 by longtime New York Daily News columnist and J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner Bill Madden, I realized I’d overshot. As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m a slow reader, frequently distracted and for my first review, I chose Madden’s reasonably quick, 262-page work. It took me a better part of a week to read and accordingly, my new series will run every other Thursday.

Aside from my fleeting attention span, I will say Madden’s book occasionally didn’t keep me engaged for the same reason a lot of baseball history books don’t: excessive exposition about what happened in games. I was drawn in initially by the cover quote that the 1954 season was “the year Willie Mays and the first generation of black superstars changed Major League Baseball forever.” With this summer’s protests in Ferguson, Missouri and the 2013 Supreme Court decision to strike down part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, America’s troubled racial history seems as relevant as ever. I’m always interested to learn more about how baseball’s history relates. It makes me proud as a fan that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the majors a decade before the Civil Rights movement really got going.

Madden includes many pertinent anecdotes, from Minnie Minoso sensing he regularly led the league in hit pitches because of his dark skin to the struggles Mays and others had staying in heretofore segregated hotels. But Madden strays from his theme at times and what felt like much of the midsection of the book to detail game-by-game minutiae. And until the epilogue, there isn’t much discussion of the legacy of the 1954 season. Granted, any baseball history book needs a certain amount of exposition, the meat and potatoes represented in how individual games came out. It’s a delicate art determining the right balance. I’d simply have liked to have read more passages like this:

A big reason, of course, for the dearth of black talent in both professional football and basketball was the fact that three of the leagues’ primary ‘feeder’ collegiate athletic conferences, the Southeastern, Southwest, and Atlantic Coast, did not get around to integrating until 1963, nine years after Brown vs. Board of Education. And it wasn’t until 1971, for instance, that the Southeastern Conference athletic programs were fully integrated. With so many gifted young black athletes in the South denied the opportunity to play football and basketball at all the major southern universities, baseball became their natural sport of choice. ‘I’m sure I could’ve been a real good football player– that’s what my mother wanted me to be,’ [Hank] Aaron told me in 2012. ‘But I didn’t see any future there. Not in Alabama anyway. I wasn’t going to college. All I wanted when I got out of high school was to get on with my baseball career and follow Jackie to the big leagues.

In 1954 Major League baseball had 38 black players, out of 536, on its rosters during the season, or 7 percent. That percentage gradually increased every year to a high of 28 percent by 1986, when it began declining again. By 2013 the number of African American players on the major league rosters was down to about 8.5 percent. Not coincidentally, the decline began in the mideighties, when the major southern collegiate conferences’ football and basketball teams were now predominantly black. It’s anyone’s guess how many potential Hank Aarons and Willie Mayses, who grew up in the South, baseball lost to football and basketball.

I’d recommend 1954 to anyone looking for a nice, quick read about one of the great seasons in baseball history. Of particular interest may be the wealth of interviews Madden did with the stars of that season, including Mays, Aaron and Bob Feller. That said, for anyone seeking the sort of thorough and academic look at MLB’s integration found in Jules Tygiel’s classic Baseball’s Great Experiment, this isn’t really the book. It’s fun but it falls short of being socially significant.

A backlog of books and a new series

Two piles of unread books sit atop my bookshelf, reminding me of a promise I made here four years ago. In the early days of this site, I once wrote that I would review any book sent to me. It was a bold promise and one I probably shouldn’t have made. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading about baseball history. But I can be a slow reader, frequently distracted and it sometimes takes me months even to finish a classic like The Boys of Summer. Four years past my promise here, I’ve long since had a backlog of books and I officially need to revise my policy.

Henceforth, I can no longer promise to review any book sent to me. The following 30 books that have been sent to me and not yet reviewed since I made my promise will be reviewed through a new weekly series starting next Thursday. It’s important to me to be a person of my word and I also believe the majority of these books may be of interest to anyone who frequents this site. Fellow writers, if you see your book among this list, I apologize for not getting to this sooner. I’ll be happy to email you when I review your book, which should be sometime in the next year:

In the meanwhile, please, no one send me anymore books!