Monthly Archives: January 2007

The Numbers Game by Alan Schwarz

I wish I had a better love for history.

My college roommate was a history major and loved the stuff. He understood it, thrived in learning more about it, and was able to process all the events he learned about in a way that gave him a maplike understanding of the past.

The Numbers Game is a history book – and it’s my lack of total love for history that kept me from really getting into this book.

Before I go any further – this is a great book about the history of statistics in baseball. Schwarz – who you probably know from his work with Baseball America, ESPN.com,  the New York Times and other publications – does his homework and takes you on a detailed tour of record keeping, not just from the who developed this or that stat, but why they did it, how it was received by the baseball community and public at large, and how keeping certain statistics effected the game.

It’s a brilliant work – thorough, cleanly written, and fairly easy to read and follow.

However – if you don’t have the history bug, it might be tough to enjoy.

I really enjoyed what Schwarz talks about in his book — seeing the way that statistics affects the bigger game and business of baseball is very interesting. But to get to that, you have to peel through a lot of layers of history and details that if you don’t really love the details of history, just make for more stuff to read. Not that I don’t love reading (obviously), but I also subscribe to the theory that says why say in 300 words what you can say in 30, or better yet in 3?

I freely admit that this often times results in me getting distracted by details – and I know that there’s a lot to learn in the details. Nevertheless though – with time being at a premium, I really want to get to the core of the message as fast as possible and learn what is really important and then go back for the details.

If you love both history and statistics – this may be one of the best books you’ll read. But if you don’t have that love for history and details – you might find yourself more frustrated than educated.

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Carrying Jackie’s Torch by Steve Jacobsen

“Little tiles make up the big picture.”

So is the quote from former major leaguer Bob Watson that best describes Steve Jacobson’s new book, Carrying Jackie’s Torch.

The 250 pages of the book, comprised of stories from African-American major leaguers not named Jackie Robinson piece together to form a painful reminder of how “all men are created equal” did not apply in this country less than 50 years ago, and how even though we have come a long way in a relatively short amount of time, there is still a ways to go.

It’s hard – if not impossible – to pick one player’s story out of the book that stands out, as they all tell an individual take on the same problem. If anything, that is the one problem I found with this book — that it is many tellings of the same story over and over again — but which leads me to back to Bob Watson’s quote.

Jacobson is an accomplished writer, having been a sports reporter and columnist for Newsday for 44 years. His relationships with the players in the book are the foundation of it. However, he stays out of most of the writing – allowing the players to tell their stories.

But in the epilogue, he mentions his surprise at how many players turned down his request to be part of the book. Was it that the memories are too painful to recall? Or as Jacobson wondered, did they deny an obligation to help young people to understand progress and how the struggles of others made it happen?

Often times, the true measure of a book isn’t about what questions it answers; but rather what new questions it leaves unanswered for the reader.

Carrying Jackie’s Torch is a lesson for those not aware of all the other people who helped to change the landscape of professional baseball. As Ed Charles states in the book, “Jackie Robinson integrated the Major Leagues; we integrated baseball.” While you may know of Aaron, Doby, and Brock, you may not know of Grant, Jackson and Ashford, all of whom helped to level the playing field.

If you have an interest in baseball history, particularly oral histories of the integration of baseball, this is a must read. If not, I would gauge its relevance and your potential enjoyment by how much you are interested in the topic. Personally, I am not as much of a historian, so I don’t think I got as much out of it as others would. That is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it and learn a lot – particularly about how baseball fit into the larger American landscape at the time. I learned more about our country than I did in most of my high school and college history classes.

In fact – I would encourage anyone under age 30 to read this – simply for the exposure to American history. Baseball does not operate independent of the larger society – and this book is a great reminder of that. Especially as we approach the 60th anniversary of Robinson’s major league debut – it is appropriate to look back at the time, traditions, and social attitudes that have changed.

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In the Ballpark: The Working Lives of Baseball People by George Gmelch and J.J. Weiner

While they don’t go unnoticed, the people who work in and around baseball often go unthought of — the beer guy, the scorekeeper, the usher who shows you to your seat. They seem to be there, doing their job, game in and game out, and unfortunately most of us never give them a second thought.

However, authors George Gmelch and J.J. Weiner did give them a second thought – in fact, they gave them their own book, In the Ballpark.

This collection of interviews gives what could be referred to as the “support staff” of baseball a chance to share stories about their lives in and around baseball, and the good and bad aspects of being involved with the game.

Did you ever think about what a beer vendor might have to say about how he sees the game? Or what it takes to be a vendor, or what kind of money they can make? I know I hadn’t really given it a second thought. But the stories do provide insight into another person who, like me, makes their livelihood around baseball.

While the stories are interesting and put you in a conversation with a beer vendor or a major league scout, I can’t say any of them are overly compelling or fascinating. I did learn some things that I didn’t know before, but things that are really only periphereal to my interests in baseball.

However – I will give In the Ballpark a lot of credit for inspiring me to get to know the people who I see at games but I don’t take the time to talk to. If you go to games on a regular basis, you’re sure to see familiar faces in the stands – maybe it’s the usher, maybe it’s a scout, or maybe just another dedicated fan.

We all have stories to tell, and while the ones in In the Ballpark are good, I would encourage you to get to know the stories of those people around you, and share your stories with them. I think you would get much more out of that than you would out of reading someone else’s stories who you might never meet.

Worth reading? Maybe — but only if it inspires you to get to know those around you. Worth adding to the bookshelf? No.

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