These three offerings are good, in my book
I never could figure out what “beach reading’’ was. To me, a book is a book, summer, fall, winter, or spring. Locale has nothing to do with it either, whether it’s in bed, on the porch, in the living room, or on the beach. What’s the difference?
I’ve been reading in all those locations (a deck substituting for a porch), and perhaps I can suggest a few sports books that will entertain and edify, with no particular connecting thread other than they’re all new and they’re all good.
The connection, if any, is that they do enable us to draw a timeline spanning approximately 125 years of American sport.
Edward Achorn’s “Fifty-nine in ’84’’ (Smithsonian) left me envious, as in “Why didn’t I do that?’’ Mr. Achorn, the deputy editorial pages editor of the Providence Journal, tells the story of Charles “Hoss’’ Radbourn, who won a record 59 games for the Providence Grays in 1884. That victory total, you will not be surprised to learn, remains the record.
What makes his book work is that this is not solely a baseball story. It is a sort of social history, giving us a feel for both baseball as it existed 126 years ago and American life in general. Daily life was decidedly different from anything we can imagine, even in cities the size of Providence.
Start with this: “Providence, naturally, stank to high heaven,’’ Mr. Achorn informs us. “There were no gasoline-powered cars or electric trolleys. Residents either set off on their own two feet or rode in horse-drawn trolleys. All those horses sprayed the streets with urine and covered them with droppings, contributing to Providence’s powerful odor.’’
As for baseball itself, brace yourself. Writes Achorn, “Professional baseball in the 1880s was not the pastoral game of myth — green, lovely and languid — but a nasty, brutish, fast-paced affair, populated by profanity-spewing young men in dirt-smeared uniforms who had few qualms about using violence to get their way.’’
Charles Radbourn was a taciturn, hard-bitten pitcher who entered the 1884 season as a bitter, angry man who felt underappreciated, and, worse, underpaid after winning 48 games in the 1883 season. He pretty much pitched the entire 1884 season in angry defiance of anyone who might get in his way.
Spicing the plot were a crafty manager, Frank Bancroft, whose business acumen exceeded his baseball savvy, which was considerable; and a belligerent teammate named Charles Sweeney, a pitcher who may have been the greatest one-season comet ever to flash across the baseball sky before disappearing forever.
A fun subplot was the rivalry between the Providence newspapers and those across the state line. The Grays were involved in a pennant race with the Boston club, and the potshots taken by the Rhody journals and their Massachusetts counterparts fell somewhere between amusing and hysterical.
Finally, this is a love story. The crusty Hoss was smitten by the charms of a lady named Carrie Stanhope, who ran a popular boarding house (no, it was not a house of ill repute), and whose “admirers were numerous among the baseball fraternity and theatrical professionals,’’ as reported by the Boston Globe.
Writing a book is never fun or easy, but I’m going to guess Mr. Achorn enjoyed researching this one.
The same was probably not true for my friend Bill Madden, who has given us the definitive portrayal of a man I consider to be one of the three most influential baseball owners ever (Barney Dreyfuss and Walter O’Malley being the other two). Whom else could I be speaking of other than the late George Steinbrenner?
Madden could negotiate the Steinbrenner saga easier than most authors because he lived through so much of it, having spent a considerable portion of his career as a baseball writer for United Press International and the New York Daily News chasing down, interrogating, listening to, or being yelled at by the bombastic majority owner of the Yankees. Some of the better anecdotes recounted in “Steinbrenner, the Last Lion of Baseball’’ (Harper) are indeed participatory journalism. And we readers are better off for it.
Who among us hasn’t thought we had a reasonable handle on just how tyrannical, irrational, relentless, spiteful, bullying, and yet curiously generous George Steinbrenner was? Turns out we had no clue. Madden has it all down, with some especially fruitful fresh material, courtesy of Gabe Paul’s son, who turned over to him juicy tapes his father would make for himself at the conclusion of another bizarre day as Yankee GM, back when Steinbrenner was in his 40s and full of energy and ideas, not all of them well-conceived.
Madden, the latest winner of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s J.G. Taylor Spink Award, was bestowed the honor before his Steinbrenner book was published. His book is proof the prize was given to the right man.
Owners are likewise the subject of Dave Zirin’s “Bad Sports,’’ subtitled, “How Owners Are Ruining The Games We Love’’ (Scribner). I think it’s safe to say we won’t find this book in the reception area of many sports teams.
Zirin bats from the left side of the plate, ideologically speaking, and he is in a take-no-prisoners mood as he excoriates modern sports moguls who, as the jacket sleeve puts it, are “abusive, dictatorial owners’’ who “move their teams thousands of miles away from their fan bases, use their stadiums as religious and political platforms, or hold communities ransom for millions of dollars of taxpayer money to fund their gargantuan stadiums.’’
Among those chastised are Clay Bennett, Charlie Monfort, Dick DeVos, Peter Angelos, Daniel Snyder, Donald T. Sterling, David Glass, James Dolan, Tom Hicks, and, of course The Boss himself. Dave Zirin is not the best lefty sportswriter. Charlie Pierce is. But he’s in the starting lineup.