Opening Day approaches. To get you in the mood, here are synopses of ten pieces of great baseball writing.
Gay Talese’s 1966 profile of Joe DiMaggio
Tom Verducci's 1999 profile of Sandy Koufax
Talese produced two of the most famous magazine profiles of the 1960s. His profile of Frank Sinatra, which appeared in Esquire in 1966, captured the singer as he approached 50, before he recorded the comeback album Strangers in the Night. A short time later, Talese profiled another prominent Italian-American at a similar stage in life. Joe DiMaggio had retired and was living in San Francisco with his widowed sister when Talese arrived. Like Sinatra, DiMaggio was initially an unwilling subject. Eventually, though, he allowed Talese to accompany him to the restaurants and golf courses where he spent his time. “I try to follow my subjects unobtrusively while observing them in revealing situations,” Talese once said.
The story ends at spring training, with DiMaggio taking swings in a batting cage, using Mickey Mantle’s bat:
“He hit three more squarely enough, and then he swung again and there was a hollow sound.
“‘Ohhh,’ DiMaggio yelled, dropping his bat, his fingers stung. “I was waiting for that one.’ He left the batting cage rubbing his hands together. The reporters watched. Nobody said anything. Then DiMaggio said to one of them, not in anger nor in sadness, but merely as a simple stated fact, ‘There was a time when you couldn’t get me out of there.’”
DiMaggio was a private man, but Koufax was “Rodmanesque” by comparison, according to this searching-for-Sandy piece. How private was Koufax? Verducci writes that when he attended the University of Cincinnati on a basketball scholarship, he didn't tell his parents that he was also a member of the baseball team.
Verducci doesn’t land an interview with Koufax, but he’s such a good reporter and writer that it doesn’t really matter. Great anecdote about Koufax’s dominance: He pitched deep into games so reliably that the relievers on his team used to treat the night before his starts "the way a sailor treats shore leave," in Verducci's telling. One day, Koufax did not appear strong enough to go his usual nine innings. His manager, Walter Alston, visited him on the mound.
"How do you feel, Sandy?" Alston asked.
"I'll be honest with you, Skip," Koufax said. "I feel a hell of a lot better than the guy you've got warming up."
David Remnick’s 1987 profile of Reggie Jackson
Remnick, who today edits The New Yorker, was a newspaper reporter in his late 20s when he spent time with Jackson, who was about to begin his final season. Jackson, one of the smarter players of his era, could see the end coming. “You don’t retire at your convenience,” he said. “You don’t die when you’re ready.”
Jackson liked money, and he presaged Michael Jordan as a corporate pitchman. A self-described “fence-sitter” on politics, he told Remnick: “I don’t want to put myself in a position to say too many things, because a lot of the people I’m in contact with are CEOs.” At one point in the story, Jackson has to cancel a dinner with John Scully, then the chief executive of Apple, because he’s temporarily misplaced a sack containing $10,000. Jacked and two flunkies, named Ted and Walt, scramble and eventually find the money in the trunk of a Porsche. Remnick writes: “Jackson’s relief was considerable, though nothing compared with Ted’s and Walt’s.”
The Worst Team Money Can Buy (1993) by Bob Klapisch and John Harper
Beat writers at rival newspapers wrote this book about the 1992 New York Mets, a team at the hard end of a golden era. The club, which lost 90 games, featured difficult characters, including Eddie Murray (“The free food’s upstairs,” he said to a reporter in an attempt to shoo him out of the clubhouse) and Howard Johnson (“a nice man turned werewolf by repeated failure in critical situations”), as well as the intelligent but self-destructive David Cone. In the book, the writers describe how Cone went out drinking after the game in Atlanta when he let runners score while arguing with an umpire. Cone showed up at a bar where the writers were having beers and bought them a round. The writers ordered a shot for Cone, who downed it, rushed out the door, threw up on the sidewalk, calmly returned to thank the writers and resumed drinking. In another part of the book, Cone wonders aloud about what it would be like to be hung like Darryl Strawberry, even for a day: “I’d like to see how much my life would change.”
Bottom of the 33rd (2011) by Dan Barry
In 1981, the Pawtucket Red Sox and Rochester Red Wings played a game that lasted eight hours before the umpires finally sent everyone home. Wade Boggs and Cal Ripken Jr. played in the epic game, which this book recounts in terrific detail, but the author doesn’t give their stories more weight than those of Dave Koza, Drungo Hazewood and others who played only briefly in the major leagues, if at all. Barry also tracks down the team executives, reporters and fans—only 19 were left when the game was called—who were a part of the bizarre night, which Barry suggests “morphed into some kind of extravagant form of performance art, in which the failure to reach climax is the point.”
Halted at 4 a.m., after 32 innings, the game resumed later in the season. It took just one inning and 18 minutes to complete.
Roger Angell’s 1980 profile of Bob Gibson
Ted Williams thought that pitchers were “dumb by breed.” Bob Gibson felt similarly about hitters. “I don’t know what’s the matter with so many hitters—it’s like their brains small up,” he told Angell when The New Yorker writer visited the proud and competitive right-hander in Omaha, five years into his retirement.
Gibson had recently moved into a new house at the time Angell visited. It was summer. They went for a dip in the pool. Angel writes:
“The pool was built to Gibson’s design; its sides and bottoms are painted black—a da Vinci-like idea of his, meant to help the water keep the heat of the sun in the spring and fall. Somehow, though, he had not remembered the warmth of mid-summer Nebraska sunshine, and when he and I slipped into the inky waves, the water temperature stood at ninety-two degrees—only a fraction cooler than the steamy, locust-loud night air. ‘Another mistake,’ Gibson said mildly.’”
Tom Verducci’s 2003 profile of Rickey Henderson
Henderson was 44 years old and playing in an independent league when Verducci wrote this appreciation of a “modern-day Yogi Berra, only faster.” The story of Henderson’s legend is mostly through the eyes of the players, managers and executives who had worked with him over his long career.
An A’s traveling security describes how Henderson liked to report late to spring training, a habit Jose Canseco picked up: “He didn't want to report before Jose did. So Rickey would drive into camp, and if he didn't see Jose's car parked there, he'd drive back out. Rickey made sure he was the last one to report."
Alex Rodriguez tells of the season they played together in Seattle: "Sometimes he'd come back to the dugout after an umpire called him out, and I'd go, 'Rickey, was that a strike?' And he'd go, 'Maybe, but not to Rickey.' "
The prologue to Underworld (1997) by Don DeLillo
Underworld is a Cold War novel that opens at the Dodgers-Giants playoff game in 1951 that ended on Bobby Thompson's famous home run. The game took on added meaning for DeLillo when he learned that it coincided with the U.S. government's announcement that the Soviet Union had tested an atomic bomb. I haven't finished the novel (it's 800 pages), but the prologue is amazing. In fact, it was released as novella in 2001, four years after Underworld was published.
DeLillo describes Giants manager Leo Durocher as "hard-rock Leo, the gashouse scrapper, a face straight from the Gallic Wars." Near the Giants' dugout sat Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, Toots Shor and J. Edgar Hoover. In DeLillo's telling, Gleason pukes as Thompson hits the home run, distracting Sinatra as the celebration envelops the Polo Grounds:
"Frank persists in looking down. He allows one foot to list to port so he can examine the side of his shoe for vomit marks. These are handcrafted shoes from a narrow street with a quaint name in old London.
"And Shor says, 'We just won unbelievable, they're ripping up the joint, I don't know whether to laugh, shit or go blind.'
"And Frank says, 'I'm rooting for number one or number three.'"
"99 Reasons Why Baseball is Better Than Football" by Thomas Boswell
A sample from the column Boswell wrote for The Washington Post in 1987:
No 20. Eighty degrees, a cold beer, and a short-sleeve shirt are better than thirty degrees, a hip flask, and six layers of clothes under a lap blanket. Take your pick: sunshine or frostbite.
No. 35: Football has Tank and Mean Joe. Baseball has the Human Rain Delay and Charlie Hustle.
No 45. The entire NFL playoff system is a fraud. Go on, explain with a straight face why the Chiefs (10-6) were in the playoffs in 1986 but the Seahawks (10-6) were not. There is no real reason. Seattle was simply left out for convenience. When baseball tried the comparably bogus split-season fiasco with half-season champions in 1981, fans almost rioted.
73. The majority of players on a football field in any game are lost and unaccountable in the middle of pileups. Confusion hides a multitude of sins. Every baseball player's performance and contribution are measured and recorded in every game.
The Numbers Game (2005) by Alan Schwarz
Number crunching hardly began with Bill James. In this history of baseball statistics, Schwarz describes how the effort to quantify performance is nearly as old as the game itself. In 1906, a newspaper writer went through scorebooks in an attempt to determine the true value of the sacrifice and the stolen base. Branch Rickey had a numbers guy. Two brothers used IBM punch cards to determine that Tug McGraw had been the best pitcher in the National League in 1969 based on his Player Win Average, the Wins Above Replacement level of its day.
Of course, in spite of this rich history, baseball continues to allow flat-earthers to sit in positions of authority. Where I live, stats-minded Royals fans are debating the extent to which Ned Yost will hurt the team with his calls for sacrifice bunts in the early innings of games. Yost's tactics have been discredited but he gets to keep making them because, as a player, he was good enough at the sport to break into the major leagues but not good enough (he appeared in 219 games) to make the kind of money that lasts a lifetime. In short, he's "baseball man," and that's who gets to manage baseball teams.
David Martin worked at alternative newspapers before abandoning ship. He lives in Kansas City and roots for the Indians. Follow him on Twitter: @david2martin