24 August 2006

The Team That Changed Baseball: by Bruce Markusen

The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates
By Bruce Markusen

c. 2006 Westholme Publishing Inc. 240 pgs. $25.00 (paperback)

Fellow blogger Bruce Markusen's newest book covers the story of the 1971 Pirates team from beginning to end, and goes beyond that, really, since it starts with General Manager Joe Brown’s assembly of the club in the winter of 1970-71 and ends with a “where are they now” epilogue. Markusen’s fond memories and thorough research, buttressed by numerous personal interviews with some of the surviving personalities form that team and that time, provide for an extremely detailed description of the season, the players and the games. The reader is led through the year, month by month, game by game, and gets the kinds of details most people would only know from having been there, which is generally a good thing. But baseball isn’t called “The Long Season” for nothing, with a month of spring training, 162 regular season games and (mercifully, in 1971, only) two rounds of playoffs to cover, not to mention the important events of the preceding and following winters. Over such a long span, the particulars of individual games get a little tedious, especially if you aren’t as invested in the Pittsburgh franchise as Markusen evidently is.

The premise of the book is that the 1971 Pirates, being the first team in Major League Baseball to field an all-minority lineup, and actually winning as they did so, showed the rest of MLB and the world that success could be achieved regardless of the colors of players’ skin. GM Joe Brown’s acquisitions of players to bolster his roster based on his team’s needs, and the players' talents, rather than their status as black or white or Latino, served as a model for other franchises to consider abandoning any official or unofficial racial quotas they may have utilized. That manager Danny Murtaugh daily filled out his lineup card without regard to race or ethnicity is a credit to his open-mindedness and gave other managers an example to follow. But if the team had not succeeded, if they had not won the National League and eventually the World Series, perhaps fewer heads would have been turned and the impact that Markusen discusses might not have been realized in MLB for much longer.

Jackie Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers on 15 April 1947. The fact that it took over 24 years, until 1 September 1971, for an all-minority lineup to take the field in a major league game is a testament to the resistance of the establishment, any establishment, to change. In spite of the major leagues being officially “integrated” as of 1947, it took years for many teams to employ their first black player, the last of them being the Boston Red Sox, in 1959. Some teams were slow to embrace the new policy, at least until they saw that black players could win, and the 1971 Pirates definitely put to rest any questions that might have remained about the quality of minority players.

Markusen is an avid baseball fan, one who's written several other books about baseball, who works at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, and whose name, when Googled, provides a host of baseball blogs, online journals and other articles from his hand. The man could hardly have a more impressive set of credentials. The book itself is sufficiently well written, with game stories and quotes that any team's beat writer would be proud to call is own, but as a book, The Team That Changed Baseball comes off a little dry. Beat writing is fine for the daily papers, but a book, to keep a reader interested, needs a little more life and a little less detail, I think. Interjections of the author's humor, his opinions, and creative word-smithing can make a book more pleasant to read, but Markusen mostly fails to include such things in this book. Perhaps more discussion of how other teams, other players, and especially fans and writers saw this team, how they reacted to the '71 Pirates and their handling of racial issues, or social issues facing the country as a whole, would have helped make the book more of a page-turner. Even painting such things in broad strokes tends to create a more intriguing picture than the simple, plodding, game-by-game, inside-the-clubhouse vantage point he takes through most of the book.

I suppose that with a title like "The Team That Changed Baseball", Bruce was sort of setting the reader up for disappointment, like calling your sports team "The Unbeatables" or naming your first born son "Jesus". Other books that have followed a team for a season or longer, Roger Kahn's Boys of Summer or Seth Mnookin's Feeding the Monster (which I'll be reviewing soon), for example, manage to include more of the emotional aspects of pursuing baseball's ultimate prize than this book did. Markusen by no means ignores the racial, ethnic, social and emotional aspects of the story, but too much of his effort, in my opinion, is squandered on who hit a home run or pitched two and two thirds innings of effective relief during a particular game or series in April or July or September, things that amount to largely inconsequential details if you're trying to make an argument that this team "changed baseball".

The fact that this 1971 Pirates team, on paper, looks very much like any number of other good teams, testifies that the "change" took, that for the last 30-plus years just about every team has been built based on talent rather than race. Whether the '71 Pittsburghs were the first team to try this, or just the first team to succeed remains an open question, but in any case they were the first team to be recognized as having been assembled this way. That alone makes this an interesting team, especially if you happen to be a Pirates fan, not to mention all the personalities on the team: NL MVP Willie Stargell, manager Danny Murtaugh, Dock Ellis, Steve Blass, Mudcat Grant, Manny Sanguillen, and of course, Roberto Clemente. There's no shortage of stories and quotes from this group, ways that they struggled, and succeeded, in getting along and in winning.

For his part, Markusen does a great job of keeping the reader in suspense, despite the fact that the events he describes happened 35 years ago. You really do feel like you're not sure the team is going to win. They took over first place in the NL East in early June and never relinquished control, building up a 10+ game lead and never letting anyone within about 3.5 games of first place after that, but still, you worry as they suffer through a 14-17 August. You worry as they get swept in four games by their likely playoff foe, the San Francisco Giants. And even after dismantling the San Franciscos three games to one in the NLCS, you worry as they face the heavily-favored Baltimore Orioles, with four 20-game winners, in the World Series. Markusen's attention to game details serves us well in these situations, particularly the playoff games, as he keeps you on the edge of your seat for all seven games of that Series, right to the very end.

In total, I think I'd give this book a hesitant recommendation, say, one and a half balls, on a scale of four. If you're a Pirates fan, I'd make it two and a half balls, and if you're Steve Blass, needing a diversion from broadcasting this year's dreadful Pirates games, it gets four balls. Blass should be pretty familiar with what that means.

07 August 2006

Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders

Mr. Wrigley [...] announced [...] the College of Coaches. The idea was that eight top coaches would rotate through the organization, from Class D all the way up to the big club, ensuring that players at every level were taught the same way to botch rundowns, miss cutoff men, ground into double plays, and so forth. [But...]

Who would manage the Cubbies?

Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders

by Rob Neyer (duh)
c. 2006, Simon & Schuster, NY
Paperback, $16.00 US/$22.00 Canadian

The newest book from ESPN's Rob Neyer, the self-named Big Book of Baseball Blunders, follows on the heels of last year's Big Book of Baseball Lineups. I don't know if Neyer is planning a while series of such works, (Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Managers, Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Equipment, Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Ballparks, Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Bubblegum...maybe not.) but you can count me in on the rest of the collection.

In this book's introduction, Neyer makes a particular point of defining the difference between a blooper and a blunder. Bloopers, i.e. on-field, spur-of-the-moment mistakes, happen all the time, and while they make the game more interesting, there's not really any way to second-guess a blooper. They just happen, and if you could prevent them, you would do so. But blunders, pre-meditated, well-thought out decisions that somehow go horribly, horribly wrong, those make for some pretty good conversations, and a pretty interesting book.

Neyer runs (mostly) chronologically through baseball history, starting with some bad decisions made by the Sox (the White ones in 1917 and the Red ones shortly thereafter), and goes straight through to Joe Torre's failure to use Mariano Rivera in a tied, extra-inning game during the 2003 World Series. He examines some of the best-known, so-called "classic blunders" (the most famous of which, is "never get involved in a land war in Asia"), but only slightly less well known is this: Never sell your best player to your biggest competitor (like the Red Sox did with Babe Ruth in 1919)!

Most of the blunders fall into one of three categories:

1) Use and/or mis-use of certain players, especially during the playoffs.
These blunders include Walter Johnson being left in too long during the last game of the 1925 World Series, Leo Durocher's failure to calm down Hugh Casey after Mickey Owen dropped what would have been the last out of the 1941 World Series, Casey Stengel's failure to use Whitey Ford three times in the 1960 World Series, and the aforementioned 2003 World Series relief pitching blunder.

Some of these types of blunders are much-debated, well-known, long-term mistakes, like Don Zimmer's mis-use of his bench (and other assorted mistakes) during the Red Sox doomed 1978 pennant drive. The St. Louis Browns' playing of a one-armed outfielder, Pete Gray, in 1945 stands as one of the more interesting stories in the history of major league baseball, an encouragement to handicapped people everywhere, I suppose. But Neyer details how Gray's presence on the team may (or may not) have cost the team the pennant.

B) The sale or trade of a great player prematurely.
Babe Ruth to the Yankees. The Pirates trading away Kiki Cuyler and Joe Cronin. The Tigers trading away a young Carl Hubbell. The Red Sox selling Pee Wee Reese to the Dodgers. Roger Maris. Steve Carlton. Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas (for Christ's sake!) Larry Anderson for Jeff Bagwell. There are, in fact, two whole chapters on bad trades, interspersed throughout the other sections, most of which are entire chapters detailing only one such tremendously bad decision.

These particular types of decisions make for some of the most interesting discussions. Some of the most famous trades/sales of players, like Babe Ruth or Pee Wee Reese or Fred McGriff, are well known for how the seem to have afflicted their former organizations for such a long time, but one of Neyer's best attributes as a writer is his penchant for analyzing both sides of an issue. He looks intently at some of these transactions, and many of them, it turns out, were not such a detriment to the franchise as you might expect. In most cases, teams that jettissoned players were either so far out of contention that the player would not have made a difference, or they had an established player in the same position and couldn't have used him anyway. Of course, that wasn't always the case, but you'll have to read the book to find out which ones

iii) Ill-considered organizational choices.
The owners naming a former military bigwig to the position of Commissioner. Collusion. The owners refusing the Charlie Finley Option of annual free agency for every player. Collusion. Candlestick Park. The Cubs' College of Coaches. Collusion.

Man, the owners have made a lot of poor choices over the years, haven't they?

These blunders, without necessarily having the debate and the local flavor of some of the bad trades or poor managing decisions, often have much more far-reaching consequences. Old time Dodger fans probably still debate Walter Alston's many poor decisions during the last game of the 1962 World Series, but very few baseball fans of any team stand around discussing how the owners' short-sightedness cost them millions of dollars, both when they missed the boat on perennial free-agency, and when they boarded it on Collusion. All three times.

There are other types of blunders, of course. Amongst those he discusses, Neyer also includes interludes on various other types of mistakes. Bad drafts. Managers who should not have been managers. Numerous instances of teams missing the playoffs by the smallest of margins, where the decision to use or not use certain players made a real difference in the race.

Baseball's long, rich history offers many opportunities for second-guessing. Managers, owners, players: nobody is immune from criticism, and Neyer doesn't pull any punches in his critiques of people and organizations. As a writer, his skills cater well to most people, with a plain-spoken tone that makes you feel as if you're having a conversation about the book's subjects over coffee and a doughnut, rather than reading them in a book. His wry humor shines through in his writing as well, as do his intelligence and thorough research, his unique insights and his even-handedness when looking at both sides of the issues.

As a long-time reader and fan of Rob Neyer and his work, I never doubted that I would enjoy this book, and I was not disappointed. But I severely underestimated how much baseball history I would learn from it, and I was pleasantly surprised at how entertaining it would be, even in its discussions of business, politics, and attendance numbers.

Neyer's writing, and the brief nature of each discussion, most chapters lasting only three or four pages, makes this an eminently readable book. If you've only got ten or fifteen minutes, sit down and read a chapter, but you won't get bored if you prefer to read four or five in a sitting. Even shorter periods of time will still allow you to read one of his three or four paragraph sidebars in most chapters, some of which play "devil's advocate" to the chapter's main point, others of which simply outline some other blunder made by that person or organization around the same time. Coffee table, bookshelf or back of the toilet, Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders will be at home nearly anywhere you decide to put it.

The worst blunder you can make is not reading it.