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My favorite book of all time

November 15, 2011

Continuing with my recent theme of “sorting through stuff from the basement and reflecting on it,” today I dusted off The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading, and Bubble Gum Book, written by Brendan C. Boyd and Fred C. Harris in 1973.

It’s more of a scrapbook than a “real” book; it consists mostly of images of 1950s baseball cards accompanied by musings about the players pictured. But it’s really, really funny, plus it perfectly captures what it’s like to be a kid obsessed with baseball. Which I was, back in the early to mid-’80s.

Some choice excerpts are below. They are awfully harsh at times; however, as the authors say in the Acknowledgments section, “We know only too well that we could not have played baseball half as well as even the most inept players mentioned herein. We know that much better than you, in fact. We tried.”

Jay Hook was a lanky engineering student from Waukegan, Illinois, who looked like Wally Cleaver and pitched like Zazu Pitts. With the New York Mets teams of 1962-64 he compiled records of 8-19, 4-14, and 0-1, for a three-year cumulative total of 12-34, which might on the face of it seem rather horrendous unless you stopped to consider that Craig Anderson, the staff’s beefy boy wunderkind in residence, had a record of 3-20 over the same time span and that Roger Craig, the stopper, if that is the proper phrase under the circumstances, had a two-year record of 15-46. The back of Jay’s card is the very soul of discretion regarding these notable statistical deficiencies, stating in part: “Jay pitched better than his record indicated in ’63.” (All things taken into consideration he would have had a pretty tough time pitching any worse.) “Jay’s a member of the National Rocket Society too!”

…Hook once wrote an article for “Sport” magazine explaining why a curve ball curves. He had a hard time getting the message through to his arm though and was forced to retire in 1964 when he could no longer get even his own teammates out during spring training intersquad games. He spent eight years in the major leagues and never had a winning season. His final won-lost totals were 29-62, with a lifetime ERA of 5.23.

I’d sure as hell like to read a scientific explanation of that.

* * *

The most impressive personal record in baseball history is the 56-game hitting streak of Joe DiMaggio. The second most impressive personal record in baseball history is the winning of 20 games by Ned Garver with the 1951 St. Louis Browns. In recording this feat, which must rank in terms of sheer miraculousness somewhere in between Johnny Vander Meer’s consecutive no-hitters and the raising of Lazarus, Garver became the first pitcher since 1924 to win 20 games with a last-place ball club. And he only lost 12. In fact those 20 victories were 38 percent of the entire Browns’ total for that year.

Now when a good hitter is with a bad ball club he’s basically all right. If he is at all competitive then all the losing might get to him and he’ll probably be a bit short in the RBIs and runs scored, but still he’s going to get his hits and everybody will know what he’s worth. But a good pitcher with a bad ball club is just plain screwed. Nobody scores any runs for him, nobody makes the big hit. The outfielders kill him with errors and the infielders lack any kind of range. The management is bitter and insulting. The crowds are sparse and often hostile. Even his friends are likely to turn against him. He is surrounded by ineptitude and indifference. Discourtesy and discouragement fill his days. And nobody ever does anything to try and shore up his morale. He is like Sviatoslav Richter playing with a Salvation Army band. There is no telling how good Garver might have been with a good club but after five or six years with the Browns, whom their owner Bill Veeck has often referred to as the worst team in the history of major league baseball, he wasn’t much good for anything. The last time I saw him his right arm was two inches shorter than his left, he looked like he was going to pass out every time he threw a slider, and he wasn’t throwing hard enough to break a soft-boiled egg against Willy Tasby’s skull.

* * *

Then there is the case of Rich Rollins, who, it seems to me, was a rookie third baseman with the Minnesota Twins about fifteen minutes ago. Well here I am still sitting around like a fool waiting for him to reach his potential and it turns out he’s been retired and coaching for the past several seasons. I thought he was just out of the lineup with the chicken pox or something, and all this time he’s been turning into a senior citizen behind my back. So anyway, what I really want to know is, if Rich Rollins is now an old man, does that mean it’s too late for me?

* * *

Whenever my father would take us up to Canada during summer vacations, we would always pass through a small sleepy potato-farming town in northern Maine near the Canadian border called Cherryfield — the sort of place that was inhabited exclusively by lobster fishermen and grizzly bears. Over the main street of the town — which coincidentally was the only street in town — there was a huge white muslin banner strung between the Flying A Gas Station sign and the front of the McKeither Brothers Dry Goods Store that proclaimed in faded red script: WELCOME TO CHERRYFIELD, MAINE, HOME OF MAJOR LEAGUE PITCHER CARLTON WILLEY. For this reason, and for none other that I can possibly think of, I have always been a fan of Carlton Willey’s. And even though, in the manner of all my particular and special sporting favorites, he has always managed somehow to disappoint me, I cannot help thinking that nothing he could do, no matter how dismal or mediocre, could ever prove disappointing, in any way, shape, or form, to the people of Cherryfield, Maine.

* * *

The Golden Greek. An All American quarterback at Boston University, a fancy fielding, home-run hitting first baseman for the Boston Red Sox, a tall, handsome, clean-cut son of immigrant parents, a good student, an all-around athlete, a youth leader and a teen-age idol, Harry Agganis was the epitome of the American dream. The day that he died of leukemia at age 25, in 1955, I was attending a performance of the Big Brother Bob Emery television program with a group of my fellow Cub Scouts. I can still remember the oversized headlines in the Boston newspapers and the feeling of stunned incredulity they aroused in all of us. Up until then death had been something that only happened to animals or in the movies or to bank robbers or people who had fires in their houses or to the old. But Harry Agganis? If something like this could happen to Harry Agganis then what was to become of us?

What indeed?

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