28 February 2010

Sunday Book Banter: Feb. 28, 2010

Well, the Washington Post has been letting me down lately. They didn't deliver during Snowmageddon (understandable), or the next weekend (even after I reported my paper as undelivered), or the weekend after (though they did bring it on Monday). Today I got my paper on time, and the Book World section didn't have a single book that I found compelling. So after a few discouraging weeks, I'm changing the name of this to "Sunday Book Banter" and expanding the scope to the big book sections across the nation on Sundays. Expect it to focus mainly on the WaPo, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times, but if something else catches my eye, it may pop up here too. Cue the (new) logo!

Today's book comes from the Sunday Book Review in the NYT. It's the much-anticipated new biography of Willie Mays penned by James Hirsch. Reviewer Pete Hamill immediately begins waxing poetic about the yesteryear of baseball, while showing the fact that it's not a topic he writes on with any regularity:
A long time ago in America, there was a beautiful game called baseball. This was before 30 major-league teams were scattered in a blurry variety of divisions; before 162-game seasons and extended playoffs and fans who watched World Series games in thick down jackets; before the D.H. came to the American League; before AstroTurf on baseball fields and aluminum bats on sandlots; before complete games by pitchers were a rarity; before ballparks were named for corporations instead of individuals; and long, long before the innocence of the game was permanently stained by the filthy deception of steroids.
Ahhh, we're in for a "the game used to be good" screed. Well, before you get on the bully pulpit of baseball, make sure you come to terms with the face that no one uses periods in DH (or 1B, RF, LF, SS, et al. for that matter). I don't mind older scribes going on and on about the beauty of the game (in fact, I often enjoy it), but I want a certain base level of knowledge to be demonstrated before I can take them seriously.

Well, Hamill goes on to list his bona fides as a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers. I suppose I can't blame him for not keeping up with baseball after his team was ripped from him in 1957. Knowing that Hamill grew up a Dodger fan when the Mays-Robinson rivalry was so heated made me expect that he would be a bit bitter about Say Hey.

But he isn't. Hamill describes how he stopped caring at all about baseball after the Dodgers left, and writes that Hirsch does a splendid job of filling him in on what he missed. How Mays could have probably had more than 700 home runs had he not played in the notoriously windy Candlestick Park in San Francisco. How Mays got to play against Sandy Koufax (could that be the best pitcher/hitter combo to ever grace the game?). And how Mays would spend his spare time helping out in the community, long before that was seen as just another good PR move.

Hamill's writing here is good, but I didn't really need any convincing. I'm a baseball fan, so I feel I need to read this book. More than any other sport, baseball has an ever-present relationship with its history. Certainly, the steroids era has has killed some of it, but we can compare our players today with those of yesterday. I know it sounds corny, and probably a bit hackneyed, but part of what I love about baseball is that history. So the Willie Mays book is kind of a no-brainer for me. But if I needed any more convincing, Hamill gives me one last great reason: "Willie Mays brought us joy. All of us."

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