There is one place, however, where baseball is always going gangbusters: your local bookstore. It remains the favorite of the American sports literati, so there’s always something fresh to thumb through between — or during, for those who prefer the game’s languid pacing — innings. One recurring theme in some of the latest books on the subject is why baseball seems to be perpetually in need of saving.
As a male over 50, I’m required to believe that everything about baseball was better back when. It wasn’t (AstroTurf anyone?), but I found the shift — when infielders overpopulated one side of the field — cheap and lame. In THE NEW BALLGAME: The Not-So-Hidden Forces Shaping Modern Baseball (Triumph Books, $30), Baseball Prospectus writer Russell A. Carleton proposes that fans who hate the shift do so because we preternaturally view things from a hitter’s perspective. Batters aren’t “robbed” of hits, Carleton argues, because it’s not their God-given right to have fielders stand to their advantage. Reverse to the fielder’s perspective and it sure does seem like the league’s outlaw of the shift has “robbed” the defense of a tool for their only job: making outs.
It’s just one of Carleton’s many insights into what the game has gained and lost, particularly in the 21st century. Carleton is a self-described “numbers guy,” but he isn’t on a nerdy harangue. In back-to-back chapters, he lays out the failures and successes of analytics. He’s an enthusiast who wants to help fans understand how baseball got to where it is today — multi-positional players, one-inning relievers, an amoral number of strikeouts — through a mix of folksy anecdotes, box score analysis, digressions about Charles Darwin and graphs. So many graphs.
“The New Ballgame” is an engaging thinking-fan’s book, even philosophical at points. Carleton’s rumination on the push-and-pull of whether baseball strategies should utilized for a single game (letting a starter throw a 125-pitch complete game because it’s amazing) or the game (pulling said starter early to protect his arm) is provocative. The intelligence and curiosity in “The New Ballgame” has me watching and pondering baseball differently, at least questioning my somewhat old-school belief system. Carleton challenges fans to define for themselves how “mutant” baseball has to become before they see it as a different sport altogether. While I don’t think the defensive shift made games unrecognizable, I still never got past believing batters should have beaten it by learning, or at least attempting to learn, to go the other way. If it’s good enough for Babe Ruth …
The Great Bambino sucking it up and adapting to the shift by hitting to the opposite field is one of many tasty morsels in Dan Taylor’s BASEBALL AT THE ABYSS: The Scandals of 1926, Babe Ruth, and the Unlikely Savior Who Rescued a Tarnished Game (Rowman & Littlefield, $36). It’s the story of how the rollicking home run chase between Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in 1927 gave baseball a shot in the arm after multiple gambling scandals had (supposedly) soured the public.
The Yankees teammates went back and forth all summer, with Ruth reaching the immortal 60 in the season’s penultimate game. But the heart of Taylor’s book is the relationship between Ruth and Christy Walsh, an adman who became the Babe’s personal manager before that sort of thing really existed. In 1921, a flailing Walsh came up with the idea to syndicate ghostwritten newspaper columns under Ruth’s byline, a sports first, to capitalize on the slugger’s ever-expanding popularity.
Pretending to be a delivery boy, Walsh ingratiated himself with the Babe by bringing him a case of beer. They became fast friends, and Walsh steered Ruth to better spending, eating and exercising habits. Walsh hired a former club fighter to serve as Ruth’s offseason fitness coach, another first. To great effect, Ruth took up swimming, boxing and jogging, while eschewing favorite meals like “steak smothered in pork chops.” In 1927, a 32-year-old Ruth showed up 35 pounds lighter and played in all but three games. On Sept. 2, Ruth and Gehrig were separated by one home run. Ruth left his teammate and his eventual 47 dingers in the dust, going yard 16 times in 27 contests.
It’s debatable whether Ruth “rescued” baseball, but he definitely saves the book, because Taylor’s contention that the sport was at the abyss is speculative at best. Two future Hall-of-Famers, Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, were suspended in the offseason for alleged game-fixing years earlier, but the investigation was dropped and neither missed a game. For sure, the scandal was a black eye for baseball, but how much quantitative harm did it actually do? Taylor cites anecdotal tabloid headlines and a precipitous drop in American League attendance when the Yankees weren’t in town as evidence of the “Tarnished Game.” But he doesn’t account for the hotly contested National League having a significant attendance increase that season, even after it became public that all-time great Rogers Hornsby owed a bookie $93,000. The premise’s validity doesn’t really matter because Taylor delivers the Ruthian goods. A particular favorite detail was random fans sending Ruth weight-loss tips, including a woman from Cleveland who “urged Ruth to eat ten pineapples a day.”
Speaking of wackadoodle ideas, what if, tomorrow, Major League Baseball allowed fans to catch foul balls for outs? Or did away with walks, mound visits and bunts? And what if, after a two-hour time limit, tie games were decided by a team of three — pitcher, catcher and a lone fielder — like backyard Wiffle ball? These are actual rules laid out in BANANA BALL: The Unbelievably True Story of the Savannah Bananas (Dutton, $29), by team owner-founder Jesse Cole, with former Sports Illustrated editor Don Yaeger. Having seen a few viral clips, I assumed the Bananas were an independent minor league team taking shenanigans to the limit, but the first baseman on stilts and the dude with the bat aflame are in fact side shows to the main anarchical event.
Cole, a.k.a. the Yellow Tux Guy, tried coaching after his college pitching days ended, but was quickly disenchanted; he found baseball bland, uninspiring and devoid of the joy he knew in his greener days. Cole set out to create a new baseball from the mound up. As a sport, Banana Ball sounds like goofy family fun, and Cole’s devotion to it links him to sincere American hucksters like P.T. Barnum. His memoir is a breezy, lighthearted read, and the Banana evangelism is affecting. Cole’s thirst to be taken for an entrepreneurial visionary, less so. It’s one thing to include effusive quotes from major league stars; it’s another to quote a former boss comparing Cole to Steve Jobs.
While upending baseball fundamentals light-years beyond the introduction of the designated hitter seems preposterous, it’s apparently working. The team will be barnstorming 33 cities this summer. Cole’s belief in Banana Ball shines through on the page, and it found me ripe for the picking. Maybe what baseball needs to be saved is simply more fun. This summer, I’m going to see for myself if the crisis has finally been averted.
Patrick Sauer has been a freelance writer for more than 20 years for many publications, some that still exist. He also co-hosts the live online talk show “Squawkin’ Sports,” which features interviews with authors of sports books.
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