Book Review: Cardboard Gods

Baseball cards played a big role in my childhood. As I’ve written here before, I got my first cards when I was around three, started collecting a few years later and at one point had roughly 5,000 cards. I outgrew card collecting by the time I hit high school, though nostalgia leads me to buy a pack from time to time. Most recently, I purchased four packs of 1988 Topps on eBay for $4 with shipping and got young versions of Tony Gwynn, Cecil Fielder and Kevin Mitchell. It was $4 well spent.

I think every kid who built a baseball card collection has a hallowed first year of collecting. For me, it was 1990 when I was six turning seven, and my best friend Devin and I sorted, talked about and loved that year’s Topps cards. For Josh Wilker, the hallowed year was 1975.

Wilker, a fellow blogger, recently had his first book published, Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards. Sports Illustrated called it a “wry, rueful memoir” in a May 10 review and dubbed Wilker “one of 2010’s most promising literary players.” After seeing that article, I emailed Wilker for a review copy. Wilker forwarded my email to his publisher, Seven Footer Press, and I quickly received the book, which I finished this morning. It was a great read.

Wilker’s book has been well-praised, from SI to ESPN to other bloggers, as it should be. Every generation, I think there are perhaps a few baseball books like this: marvelously written, literary and unique. When Ball Four debuted in 1970, the New York Times wrote, “Ball Four is a people book, not just a baseball book.” Cardboard Gods works similarly. It joins The Boys of Summer as the second baseball book I’ve recommended to my mom.

Ostensibly, the book is about baseball cards, with each chapter an autobiographical essay devoted to a specific card spanning 1974 to 1981, the bulk of time Wilker collected before he too grew out of it. Wilker writes about his childhood and early adult life, using cards as metaphors, and towards the end especially, chapters fly by with limited mention of players. It works, though. I’m glad the book is billed being about cards, as I doubt I would have heard of Wilker otherwise. That being said, Wilker could have written about mud, and the writing would appeal. Wilker has an MFA from Vermont College and won a short fiction award, and in Cardboard Gods, it shows.

The story drew me in. Early on, I started to care about Wilker’s family members, wondering how their stories would come out, and appropriately, the book includes personalized cards for them. Though there is great baseball writing, like a reference to the Milwaukee Brewers as a “malodorous unshaven rabble,” my favorites passages concern Wilker’s mom’s boyfriend fashioning a metal chimney to his VW van in a failed attempt to work as a mobile blacksmith or Wilker, his brother and his dad going to a rock concert (featuring “a few prolonged explosions that I knew were songs only because they began and ended.”)

Were this a movie review, I would give Cardboard Gods three and a half stars out of four. My lone criticism here — which could be the baseball geek/former sportswriter in me talking — is that Wilker offers obvious stuff about players. When I got to the Mike Kekich chapter, I knew it would be about him swapping wives with his teammate, Fritz Peterson (that really happened.) I knew the Herb Washington chapter would talk about him being the only designated pinch runner in baseball history. I wanted more about the players, but perhaps that would have detracted from the memoir.

After finishing the book in the wee morning hours today, I emailed Wilker. He references a few non-sports books in his work, including Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which was assigned reading from a favorite college writing professor. My professor also raved about Tobias Wolff and other writers, so I asked Wilker about his influences. Wilker replied a couple hours later, “I love Tobias Wolff and have read just about everything he’s written, I think. This Boy’s Life especially had an influence on my book.” That makes sense. I read both books (Wolff is one of my favorites, too) and Wolff and Wilker have similar life stories, both coming from broken homes, getting expelled from prep schools, and struggling to transition into adulthood. Of course, both men also beautifully related their stories years later.

One final thing. In Cardboard Gods, Wilker writes about youthfully penning a fan letter to his hero, Carl Yastrzemski and never hearing back. I wondered if the book changed this. I asked if there had been any word from Yaz. Wilker replied, “Only in my heart.” If I were Yaz, I’d drop Wilker a quick line. I can’t imagine a better postscript for the paperback edition of Cardboard Gods. John Updike once wrote of another Red Sox immortal, Ted Williams, “Gods do not answer letters.”

Imagine if one did.

Classic book review: Summer of '49

Since reviewing The Boys of Summer here in November, I have been meaning to write about more classic baseball books that I have read.  There are a few classics.  Ball Four comes to mind, as does The Glory of Their Times, Ken Burns Baseball and a recent addition, Game of Shadows.  But if The Boys of Summer is the best baseball book ever — and it’s probably either that or The Glory of Their Times — the next runner-up might be Summer of ’49 by David Halberstam.

I read it and Ball Four around the same time during my senior year of college.  I wasn’t required to read either book, though for me, it wasn’t strictly pleasure reading; this was during a period when I figured I was going to be a sportswriter after graduating, and I wanted to read as many great pieces of sports writing as I could.  I’m glad I read both books.

I found Summer of ’49 compelling for a number of reasons.  Halberstam, a Harvard graduate who won a Pulitzer Prize reporting the Vietnam War for The New York Times, deftly recreated the 1949 pennant race between the Boston Red Sox and eventual World Series champion New York Yankees.  A skilled reporter who began writing sports books in his forties, Halberstam interviewed nearly every living member of those Red Sox and Yankee teams, with the exception of Joe DiMaggio, who resisted participating.  Halberstam more than made due with the others, though.  The book ends with a beautiful, vivid recollection from Ted Williams that I won’t spoil here.

But the book is far from just a rehash of box scores with some quotes from a few players.  I could have written that– any half-competent hack could have, really.  Halberstam made his work distinct with anecdotes at once crisply written, original and funny.  Nearly five years on from finishing the book, I didn’t have to look long to find one such example, that comes from page 143.  Halberstam wrote:

Lefty Grove, one of the greatest pitchers in the history of the sport, had also come to Boston near the end of his career.  Grove kept a bottle of whiskey in his locker.  He was given to tantrums, though as Ted Williams noted, his tantrums were always beautifully controlled.  If he smashed his locker after a tough loss, he always did it with his right hand.

I remember thinking as I read the book that it didn’t seem perfect.  Structure-wise, it’s really just a chronology of the ’49 season with a lot of interviews interspersed, which is how many baseball books are written, not that there’s anything terribly wrong with that. I would just submit that the greatest art is sometimes innovative, like Citizen Kane, a film decades ahead of its time when it debuted in 1941.  But the fact Summer of ’49 even has me thinking in these terms says something.  I’ll probably read the book again at some point, even if simply in preparation to write a historical baseball book of my own and see how it’s best done.

I was disheartened when Halberstam died in a car accident in 2007 at 73, though I admire how he went: His obituary in The Times noted he was en route to interview former NFL quarterback Y.A. Tittle for a book when the car he was riding in got broadsided.  Great sportswriters always seem to be working right up until the time of their death, from Jim Murray to Shirley Povich to Red Smith.  While I hope it doesn’t sound pretentious to include myself in this equation, I hope I’m still writing decades from now.

Book Review: Bash Brothers

As faithful readers of this space will know, I interviewed Jose Canseco in April 2008 on his promotional tour for his book, Vindicated. While researching Canseco in the days leading up to our meeting, I came across a notice for a forthcoming book on the former Oakland Athletics slugger and his teammate, Mark McGwire. The book was titled Bash Brothers, with the subhead, A Legacy Subpoenaed.

After contacting the publisher, Potomac Books, I interviewed the author, Dale Tafoya. However, my story wound up focusing on the signing, and I felt like Tafoya’s quotes would take away from the narrative, so I decided not to mention him. Tafoya accused me of using him for information, which would have been more ludicrous if he’d known me; in a sense, I’ve been researching Canseco since I was six. Most of what we discussed was stuff I already knew.

I subsequently received a review copy of Bash Brothers and was unsure what to do with it. My editor at the East Bay Express declined a review, since he’d just published my Canseco story. I contacted an acquaintance at the San Francisco Chronicle, they passed as well and the book thus sat unread. Eventually, it fell behind my bookcase, along with my unread review copy of Vindicated.

I always felt guilty about this and at times wanted to read the book but since that would have necessitated moving my bookcase, which would have necessitated getting all my books off of it first, I did not. However, I moved apartments this summer and finally recovered Bash Brothers. After finishing reading The Boys of Summer this fall, it was time to review Tafoya’s work.

I read Bash Brothers and all in all, it wasn’t bad. In fact, I rather liked certain parts, including the chapter that talked about an old Reggie Jackson spending a final season in Oakland to tutor Canseco and McGwire. Tafoya also commendably did four years of research putting together the book. He takes two pages at the end to list 112 people he interviewed, including former A’s players Dave Parker, Bob Welch, Dave Henderson and Dennis Eckersley and one-time baseball commissioner Fay Vincent, who wrote the foreword for the book.

Missing from this group, though, are McGwire and Canseco. In fact, the book gives no mention to whether they were even contacted (Canseco was happy to talk with me; he arrived at his signing an hour early for our interview.) The book never produces a smoking gun, either, for McGwire or Canseco having used steroids, only quoting excerpts from Canseco’s bestseller, Juiced, offering vague quotes from McGwire’s former strength coach, Curt Wenzlaff, and saying McGwire had a younger brother who got into bodybuilding and probably did steroids.

Sports Illustrated writer Selena Roberts got Alex Rodriguez to admit to using steroids by alleging this in a book; two San Francisco Chronicle reporters obtained grand jury testimony that confirmed Barry Bonds juiced as well. Somehow, it doesn’t feel that Tafoya went deep enough in his research, though he has a great bit from former outfielder Ben Grieve, retired and angry at all the juicers who prospered while he stayed clean and struggled.

Tafoya himself came in something of an unknown, with the book flap saying he studied journalism at a community college. The front of the book lists a slew of other titles from the publisher that I’ve never heard of. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I would love to have a baseball book with my name on it, even if few read it.

Tafoya’s writing itself is nothing special. “The game of baseball was out of its element, it seemed,” Tafoya writes of the Congressional hearings Canseco and McGwire appeared at in March 2005. “As compelling as each opening statement appeared, more riveting moments seemed ahead. Feeling like scattered chunks of bread surrounded by a swarm of starving seagulls, Canseco and McGwire threatened to evoke the Fifth Amendment when cornered with a self-incriminating inquiry.” The book is filled with writing of this sort that always seems just a little off, stilted, reaching.

Even the title is awkward. How exactly does one subpoena a legacy? Then again, I may have been a bit biased coming off The Boys of Summer. Very few sports books are that poetic or well-written. I’m not any worse for having read Bash Brothers. I found it interesting enough, though I probably wouldn’t recommend it to a non-sports fan. I say this as someone who insisted my mom read The Boys of Summer.

Now all I need to do is read Vindicated.

Classic book review: The Boys of Summer

After more than a year, I finally finished The Boys of Summer this afternoon.  Written by Roger Kahn and first published in 1971, the book is part oral history about the Brooklyn Dodgers and part recollection by the author of covering the team as a young reporter in the early 1950s.  I’ve read many baseball books.  This numbers among the very best.

To be sure, it is not quite perfect.  The latter two-thirds of the book, where Kahn interviews thirteen former Dodgers is plodding at times, a he-said-this, then-he-did-that style of writing that would lull were the subject matter not so historically compelling.  The book is also unabashedly sentimental, by Kahn, a Brooklyn native and lifelong Dodger fan.  At times, it feels overwritten.

Taken on the whole, however, the work is astonishing.  Overwrought though the emotional appeal may sometimes be, it is powerful again and again throughout the book.  Kahn captures a quadriplegic Roy Campanella in tears remembering past glories, the funeral for Jackie Robinson’s oldest son, killed in an automobile accident at 24, and in an epilogue written years later, Pee Wee Reese wheelchair-bound, cancer-ridden and close to death.  Perhaps the most moving passage captures the death of Kahn’s father:

I drove down dark streets at reckless speed.  The sidewalk was a rotten place to die.  Pebbled cement scrapes a twitching face.  A man deserves privacy at the end, and anesthesia.  Surely my father had earned that for a gentle life.

The historical contribution is also undeniable.  Even if the writing were abominable, and it’s not, I would be interested to read about the codas for men like Robinson, Campanella and Gil Hodges.  Kahn’s level of detail is also meticulous.  One of my college writing professors said a good writer is someone on whom nothing is lost.  Kahn’s book is layered with dialogue and asides, material I struggle to capture.  It’s much easier to tell than to show.  Kahn does the latter, admirably.

There are a lot of baseball books and many fade into obscurity after a short time.  Kahn’s work endures, a rare sports entry in the canon of Western literature.

__________________

Before I end here, I wanted to add two points, not significant enough to figure into a review but worth noting nonetheless.

Early on, Kahn reveals a small tell, probably unremarkable to most readers but glaring to a past sportswriter like myself.  Kahn writes on page four, “Beyond undertaking a newspaper assignment, I believed I was joining a team.  At twenty four, I was becoming a Dodger.”  Going through journalism school, I learned objectivity.  I covered many teams, from prep to pros and I was never a member of them, saved for the few school teams I actually competed for.

Late sportswriter Jimmy Cannon put it better when interviewed for a book on sportswriters, No Cheering in the Press Box. Cannon said:

Most of the guys traveling with ball clubs are more publicists than reporters. A guy might be traveling with the Cincinnati Reds, though it could be any team, and he refers to the ball club as ‘we.’  I’ve seen sportswriters with World Series rings, and they wear them as though they had something to do with the winning of the World Series.  Maybe they’re entitled to them.  Maybe their biased cheerfulness helped the club.  I wouldn’t know.  I would not wear a World Series ring.

Kahn, to his credit, does little to suggest objectivity, noting in the epilogue, “I was neutral all right.  Neutral for Brooklyn.”

A more stinging critique of Kahn’s style comes from a different breed of writer, Jim Bouton.  Where Kahn wrote dignity and grace and heroism, Bouton captured players as ordinary louts, pill poppers and womanizers in Ball Four, his playing diary about the 1969 season.  In I’m Glad You Didn’t Take it Personally, the follow-up to his bestseller, Bouton derided Kahn:

Not long ago Roger Kahn, a writer who did not like Ball Four, wrote in Esquire about a player who was losing his skills and knew it. ‘It is something to cry about, being an athlete who does not die young,’ Kahn wrote.   And all I could think was, bullshit.  Only a man who never played the game could have written that line.  It’s fake, like the men who cry when they can no longer play baseball are fakes.

While I doubt Kahn didn’t legitimately believe what he was writing, Bouton may have a slight point about the value of experience.  Regardless, I appreciate both of their perspectives.