4/5/17

David Rubin - My “Annual” Baseball Book Review Part 1 (Which Hasn’t Been Annual in Too Many Years!!)

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“Welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends…”
-Karn Evil 9: Emerson, Lake and Palmer
-Every baseball fan in the world on Opening Day


Happy Opening Day, friends! The Mets sure opened in style, with THOR taking control over 6 before a blister ended his dominance for the day! We’ve dreamed about this day since last year’s Wild Card loss to the Giants of San Francisco, but baseball was all around us all off-season long!

Once upon a long ago, the only remnants of the game we love during those long Winter months came via Baseball Digest, The Sporting News and Topps Baseball Cards, which didn’t come out nearly as early as they do now. Imagine that- no internet, barely any newspaper coverage, no MLB Network, no Baseball America- need I go on? What to do, then, for a baseball lover during that long, long off-season?

In 1972 my dad, a school-teacher and rabid sports fan, introduced me to the only thing that helped me navigate those long, days of baseball-free winter: BASEBALL BOOKS!!!! I was a sponge- 8 years old, reading on a near-College level, desperate for the sound of the crack of a bat hitting a ball and ready and willing to read about any player or team who participated in this game we so love! The books came in all forms- from annual editions of “Who’s Who In Baseball” to biographies of Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson to back issues of the previously mentioned “Baseball Digest.” For a kid, I started to develop quite a library, and within 2 years I had a pretty impressive bookcase filled about 90% with books about our beloved pastime! I’m happy to say that I still own about 30 of those books, the original copies, and have replaced probably 100 more with various newer editions or used copies via that wonderful book marketplace, also referred to as most as “the internet.”

We are fortunate to be living in a world where information is available with the touch of a switch and that same convenience has enabled authors of all skillsets and training to publish books of all sorts covering every aspect of the “national pastime.”  Now, fans, professional journalists, published authors and historians alike can see their work displayed side-by-side at a Barnes and Noble (those that still exist) and on the same upcoming release list on Amazon. Today, in part 1 of my Baseball Book Reviews, we run that gamut of authors, and we will be focusing on Mets-related books, of which there were many, as well as the best baseball book I have read since picking up a copy of Jim Bouton’s legendary “Ball Four” for the first time, back in 1973. 

This has been an off-season that saw the release of a plethora of great, new baseball books being released, and as a result, we’ll go in-depth on a handful here, and next week, we’ll have a capsule summary of about 10-12 more, depending upon how many I can finish reading this week. I also plan on 2 additional posts, later in April or early May, covering some of the older releases that I was able to purchase online to add to my (ever-growing) library, as well as some additional releases that I have yet to receive, on subjects ranging from Hank Greenberg to Rick Ankiel. Enjoy part 1, and if you have either any questions about any of these books, or wish to add recommendations, please comment below! 

And, as always, LET’S GO METS!!!!!



CASEY STENGEL: BASEBALL’S GREATEST 

CHARACTER

By Marty Appel


When I was 8 years old, in 1972, I remember watching a New York Mets game with my dad, and during a rain delay WWOR TV showed some old Mets footage from 1962, their inaugural season. Prominent in the footage was their first manager, one Charles Dillon Stengel, and his double-talk, or "Stengelese" was both amusing and confusing to an 8 year old fan. I asked my dad why a baseball team would hire someone to be their manager who was such a clown. My dad's response was along the lines of "not judging a book by it's cover," and he explained to me a bit about Stengel's career as both a quality major leaguer who once played for his beloved NY Giants, as well as his very successful career with the crosstown rival Yankees. I was intrigued by this man, able to simultaneously attract people to his persona yet, underneath the facade was a brilliant manager who was able to take the lessons he learned from old masters like John McGraw and expand upon them and make them his own.

A number of years later, I had the great fortune to receive a copy of Robert Creamer's bio of Casey back in 1985, as a present from my dad, and like everything Creamer wrote, you could look at it as a "definitive work" on his subject. However, since his Casey bio was written, the ability to receive information and conduct research has improved exponentially and therefore a great deal of information that previously wasn't available about Casey's early playing career was now readily accessible.

Marty Appel's research, as always, is astounding, leaving no stone un-turned, and his hard work paid off as he was able to access an unpublished manuscript written by Casey's late wife, Edna, which offered great insight into both their relationship as well as a wealth of additional information about Casey's long, illustrious career. A truly three-dimensional portrait came to life of this amazing man, whose career spanned from Christy Mathewson and Babe Ruth to Mickey Mantle and Tom Seaver. The span of Casey's career could certainly lead to a rousing game of "Six Degrees of Casey Stengel!" But why another book about Casey? Well, MLB Network began a series of specials, entitled "Prime 9" not long after debuting, and in 2009 an episode entitled "Baseball's Greatest Characters" named Casey their number one Greatest Character. The seed was planted- writing the definitive book about Stengel; the thought of finding new information about Stengel was the challenge, but no moreso then writing books that deftly and succinctly covered the entire history of baseball's greatest team ("Pinstripe Empire") or crafting a biography about the late, great Thurman Munson ("Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain") many years after helping Munson write his autobiography. I am happy to report- for all three books, but in particular with "Casey" - challenge was accepted, and challenge was MORE than delivered upon with amazing success!!!

The beauty of reading a book written by Marty Appel is that, while engaged, you hear the "voice" of the subject shining through at all times, perhaps the best thing you can say about a biographer. Appel's words not only bring Casey and an incredible cast of characters to life, but they allow you to experience events as if they were happening in front of you, without judgement, without agendas, devoid of anything other than the subject and his circumstances. Appel has crafted a work of biographical art, adding new information to a man of whom there's been no shortage of books and articles written about over the years, some 42 years after his passing. This shouldn't surprise anyone who has read any of Appel's past works, especially his recent books "Munson" and "Pinstripe Empire." It's ironic that one of my very favorite authors specializes in Yankee's history, of course, having been named the youngest PR Director in baseball history when iconic Yankee's owner George Steinbrenner appointed him to the position in 1973. Ironic, because I was raised and remain a raving fan of the NY Mets (some would say "raving mad"), which in itself should tell you just how great of an author Appel truly is. In fact, I have purchased a number of copies of "Pinstripe Empire" for fellow Mets' fan friends, and to a person they raved about this incredible portrait of a truly reviled (and often hated) city rival. I've now purchased an equal number of copies of "Casey Stengel: Baseball's Greatest Character" for the same people, and I can't wait to hear how much they've enjoyed this incredible book.

Judge for yourself- by all means, wrhether you're a fan of the Yankees, Mets, any baseball team, sports in general or just a fan of great biographies, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. The life of Casey Stengel was, and always will be - amazin' amazin' amazin' amazin' amazin' amazin' amazin'!!!! Thank you, Marty Appel, for showing everyone why...and thank you for making Casey’s life relevant again for the many new fans who only have seen him, if at all, as the same clown I thought he was upon my first glance!

RATING: Amazin’ Amazin’ Amazin’ Amazin’  

   



PIAZZA: CATCHER, SLUGGER, ICON, STAR


By Greg Prince

Greg is the co-author of the great Mets’ blog, “Faith and Fear in Flushing” and also grew up in the town next to mine, although we never “met” in all those years of frequenting the same pizzerias, supermarkets, et al. It was only my move to California that brought Greg into my “world” as I sought out fellow Mets fans online and came across his blog, about a year after it began, somewhere around 2006. Since that time, although we are have been Facebook “friends” for quite a while, I have to admit that other than the random “like” here or there, we haven’t engaged in much conversation. I attribute that mostly to the fact that, through his fantastic blog, I feel that I know him, through mutual suffering and angst via this team we live and die with. Greg’s books come from the standpoint of fellow fan, and sometimes, during the not so wonderful seasons (and of those, we have seen FAR too many), it’s that much harder to relive something that you’d sooner prefer to forget. It’s in those moments that the brilliance and relevance of Greg’s writing shines through, as we do review those losses, those blown games, those bad trades, although this time we are doing it together, sharing these setbacks that seem tragic at first, only to grow less hurtful as the wounds cauterize with time.

Greg’s latest book, “Piazza” comes a mere 3 years after the catcher released his autobiography, the aptly titled “Long Shot.” I have to admit that, even after meeting Mike and having him autograph my book at a signing out here in SoCal, I wanted to enjoy his book more, the way I LOVED discovering him as a Dodger, watching him tutor my younger daughter in how to keep her swing level at a baseball camp in the mid-90’s, and reveled – REVELED- in having him become a Met in an incredibly lucky series of circumstances in 1998! I still remember the shock and disbelief at the acquisition, as he was, at that time, my favorite non-Met in the game- by FAR!! Having met him, shook his hand, watched him instruct my daughter and those of so many other fathers, and even attended multiple (hated) Dodger games (ones versus the Mets and many more versus other opponents) to witness his extraordinary bat in person, the thought that being deprived of watching him in person was forced to the back of my mind by the thought of getting to watch him in pinstripes- OUR pinstripes- the Orange and Blue colors replacing the Blue and White of Brooklyn lore! It meant that I would only get to see him hit when the Dodgers played the Mets (in person and on TV), as well as the Braves (via TBS) and the Cubs (via WGN) as MLB TV did not yet exist. I was incredibly happy to learn that my in-laws, who lived a mere 25 minutes away, somehow had a better cable system that we did and it included MSG, WPIX, WWOR and Sports Channel NY (I learned a few years later that my late father-in-law had one of those “illegal black boxes” hence the expanded channel line-up)! Thereafter, it wasn’t unusual to “happen” to visit the in-laws on the day of a particularly important Mets game, and IF the game HAPPENED to be on while we were visiting, well, wasn’t THAT a fortuitous coincidence.

Lifelong Mets’ fans saw the Piazza acquisition in line with those of Donn Clendenon, Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter, all of which led to World Series championships. This one, however, was different, very different, because, although he had been “raised” in a different organization like the others, his career wasn’t even at its midway point and he was young enough that, if he continued the trajectory his career was taking, he’d be a surefire Hall of Famer and, perhaps, if we were lucky enough to keep him wearing the “NY” on his hat, maybe it would happen in a Mets’ uniform.

Prince’s book takes you through all of this, what Piazza’s acquisition really meant to us, as Mets’ fans, how watching him in that uniform gave us renewed pride, success and hope, and ultimately, what entering the Hall of Fame last summer meant to each of us still. The details mattered then, and they matter now, and there’s no better fan then Prince to both share them with those new to these details and those reliving them once again. Like Tom Seaver, of whom Prince begins this journey with, Piazza didn’t end his career with the Mets and, like Seaver, his departure wasn’t easy on the team, the fans OR the player. That’s why this book is more relatable to a Mets’ fan than Piazza’s own bio, as it takes a raving fan to be able to truly put what this meant in a way that readers can understand whether or not you were a fan of the team or just baseball in general. Seaver was our first Hall of Famer; Piazza, our most recent. In between? Nothing. The team has had multiple Hall of Famers come through their clubhouse, but none who stayed long enough to see the team earn their logo on the player’s plaques in Cooperstown. Prince covers these subjects with his usual thoroughness, but in a way that makes the reader feel as if they were sitting together, grabbing a slice of pizza at Gino’s in Long Beach, reminiscing about old number 31 once more. It’s a conversation I’m glad to have had, once more, reading Prince’s great account of OUR Hall of Famer, Michael Joseph Piazza!!!

RATING: A Hit On Clemens’ Head with a Bat!!!



1/2

                                                                                                                                   

FASTBALL JOHN


By John D’Aquisto

I still remember reading Ball Four as a kid. It was a paperback copy, already somewhat beaten up, as it was my dad’s copy, one he had read while riding the LIRR in the summertime, and it was about 5 years old already, having been released in 1970. It was eye-opening, especially as a 10 year old, baseball-loving kid. I recognized most of the names, but I hadn't seen the majority of the players in action. Unlike Bouton, who played the majority of his career just before my time,  I vividly remember John D'Acquisto's career, to the point of my dad telling me to watch this kid because he's going to be another Nolan Ryan; may take 4-5 years to get his stuff together, like Ryan,  but you can't teach that heat!!!! Well, John's career might not have hit the statistical heights Ryan's did (and, after all, no one else will, either), but his life, in and outside the game, is indeed one that is Hall of Fame worthy!

Brutally honest, John peels back layers rarely, if ever, disclosed by athletes, from his high school days as a phenom, to wading through being drafted by the Giants; from tearing up the minors (on and OFF the field) to finally making it to the bigs; and, most importantly, reaching what you always dreamed about and what it was actually like to accomplish it.

All the things we look for in a great novel are here- a hero, his love (loves), the family offering support, the mentors guiding our hero through various landmines, the "evil" that lurks behind various minor league towns, making it big, losing his way, redemption, great loss, trust gone wrong, redemption and, ultimately, allowing all of us to feel it as it happened.

John's vivid recall, combined with the seasoned hand of veteran author Dave Jordan make "Fastball John" the worthy 2016 successor to "Ball Four." AND- for me- having followed John's career with the Giants (the team of my father's childhood) and the California Angels (my 2nd favorite team of all time), it was great to learn why this fastballer's career took the paths it did- so thank you, John, for sharing your amazing life with us, warts and all!!!
Last and not least, if you had to do it all again, would you learn to throw a devastating change-up from the get-go??

RATING: Brings The High Heat!!! 




DYNASTIC, BOMBASTIC, FANTASTIC


By Jason Turbow


I have a confession to make- I LOVED those “Swingin’ A’s” of the early/mid-70’s, in spite of the fact that they played in the same division as my beloved Angels, in spite of the fact that they defeated my MOST beloved Mets in the 1973 World Series. They were, perhaps, the most INTERESTING team of all time, if not the best (and that’s still debatable with Yankees’ fans everywhere). As a result, I’ve read at least 8 books about those teams, and they’ve run the gamut from insightful to mostly a recounting of games, but each one added something to the legend of this wild and whacky bunch that won 3 World Series in a row, a number that very easily could have numbered 5 instead.

The team was well-laden with characters that the most inventive novelist or screenwriter would be hard-pressed to come up with on their own! From the crushing ego of Reggie to the mistreated Vida; from the under-rated Rudi to the simplistic beauty of Catfish; all incredible in their own right, all failing in comparison to the overwhelming owner, the legendary owner, Charles O. Finley, deserving of the title of this book on his own volition! Although many details have come out over the years about the various idiosyncrasies of this team, this is the first book that not only captures all of them but also brings new information to light for the first time, at least to the general public.

The players and, in particular, the owner, were fortunate to have played long before the invention of Social Media. In fact, most baseball journalists during the early/mid-70’s still covered up many of the off-field details that certainly would have led to scandals in that day and age. Still, as the weird, strange and offbeat details started to emerge from the city of Oakland, it was all journalists could do to NOT disclose them, as the story that evolved was one too rich to remain bar-room conversation exclusively. The team was successful in spite of itself, in spite of an owner who was the biggest character of them all, in spite of the fact that various teams they faced were so great in their own right that a lucky break here or there and the Reds or Tigers or Orioles would have been the Dynasty we would be referring too instead of the men of the Green and Gold!

Part of me wishes to disclose the circumstances that nearly crushed Vida Blue’s career,  or the reason behind Catfish Hunter’s free agency, or the fight between Mike Epstein and Reggie Jackson that almost ended in the Yankee’s losing their future slugger-to-be! However, the greatness of this book lies not only in the writing, which flows like an incredible novel, but in the details themselves, of these instances as well as the trades that almost didn’t happen and those that did, the battles with the Commissioner, the teams they faced, their owner who almost single-handedly destroyed the team from within, but most of all the winning that came in spite of all of this!

Forgo the various chapters and snippets that have been published online, and opt instead to reward Turbow’s thoroughness and insight that resulted in, by far, the greatest recounting of this legendary team by purchasing the book yourself and delighting in the many surprises as they happen. You’ll be really glad that you did!!

RATING: A Gold and Green Delight!!!! 





ALL OF THESE BOOKS CAN BE PURCHASED AT YOUR 

LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR VIA AMAZON.COM!!!


NEXT WEEK: Part 2 – The Happy and Brief Recaps (of many more baseball books!) - and NOT all of them are 5 star reviews, either!

5 comments:

Mack Ade said...

This post represents the official return of one of the original Mack's Mets writers, my good friend David Rubin.

David was in some way a part of this blog from the get go and, those of you that are long term readers, will remember the quality of his work.

Before Mack's Mets, he wrote for Mets Fever.

Please welcome David back and I hope we will see more of him each week (pressure... :).

Hobie said...

Delightful, David. I'm headed over to Amazon right now.

A personal aside. I knew Robert Creamer all my life, and after a middle age hiatus we reconnected for some marvelous story-telling weekends in Saratoga during his final years. While he's best known for his Ruth & Stengel bio's (& ghost autobio's of Mantle, Red Barber & Jocko Conlon) I found his "Baseball in 1941: The Best Season Ever" the most absorbing (& it was his favorite writing experience). Maybe that gets a review in the next "Annual" Baseball Book Review?

Thomas Brennan said...

Great stud, David. I was a Sporting News addict for stats when I was a kid, so as folks can see, nothing's changed.

Great stuff on books. I read my share as a kid, but it's all a faded memory. None of the ones in your article.

David Rubin said...

Hobie- I love Creamer & "Baseball in 1941..." is a marvelous work! Creamers work is timeless & Casey author Appel was a good friend of his! I hope after the season ends in our Series' victory I can post a historical review of best all-time books. Creamer would have 3 on that list!

David Rubin said...

Thomas- thanks!!! All 4 are new and available both on kindle & in print. Fastball John is in my opinion one of the best 10 bucks about baseball of all time. The other three are incredible as well & you cannot go wrong with any of them!

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