Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Mini Book Reviews

Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero by Leigh Montville

As you guys probably know, Ted Williams was and is my favorite player of all time. Unlike some heroes (like DiMaggio - more on him later), even the sanitized, hero-worship stories of Williams made it clear that while he may have been a great hitter, but he was a grade-A jerk. So at no point in my life was there any casting-aside of childhood illusions of perfection - I was always well aware of Williams' dickish tendencies.

The story of Williams early life and baseball career was something I already knew well, so what interested me the most was reading about the end of Williams' life. The whole "freezing" story is well known, but reading in depth about Williams' son...well, lets just say that he's a piece of work. Hearing about someone becoming frail and demented in old age is always sad, but it's seems more tragic when someone larger than life shrinks to that point.

Montville's biography is very good - I like his writing style, and I look forward to reading his more recent biography on Babe Ruth.

Joe DiMaggio : The Hero's Life by Richard Ben Cramer

I've always loved the story about DiMaggio saying that he would always try his hardest because someone might be watching him for the first or the last time. But I love the story not because it has a great moral but because it speaks volumes about DiMaggio's obsession with image. Williams was always viewed as a selfish player (he was) who had a huge ego (he did), but the fact that DiMaggio cared so much about what other people thought of him is selfish as well. Both men were viewed through the lens of their caricature - Williams as the loudmouth jerk who cared only about hitting, and DiMaggio as the quiet team player. But in reality, they had much more in common than the public perception would indicate.

"The Hero's Life" basically stops halfway through the book to do a mini-biography on Marilyn Monroe, which is, if anything, more interesting than the rest of the book. But the whole book is great - it paints a vivid picture of a man struggling through his whole life to have any kind of a real relationship with anyone. Reading about Ted Williams (at least until the story of the end of his life), put a smile on my face. Reading about Joe DiMaggio - a hero, an idol - made me feel pity.

The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball by Tom M. Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, Andrew Dolphin

By nerds, for nerds. It's dense, but I found it worth the effort. There are studies on a variety of issues - clutch hitting, batting orders, leveraging relievers - but my favorite was the most in-depth analysis of the sacrifice bunt I've seen (by far). The biggest surprise was how much the infield depth affects the chance of a sacrifice bunt working (not just trading an out for a base, but the rarer but still common cases where both runners are safe). They found that most hitters, even very good ones, can "profitably" bunt if the defense isn't expecting it (like, say, in the early innings).

A Clever Base-Ballist: The Life and Times of John Montgomery Ward by Bryan Di Salvatore

I've had this on my must-read list for years, so I was disappointed when the book was only so-so. Like many biographies of 19th- and early 20th-century stars that I've read (Honus Wagner, Cy Young), there just isn't enough information to fill a whole biography with interesting stories. My sense is that John Ward's life was just as, or more, interesting than Williams or DiMaggio's, but unfortunately, much of the record of that is lost.

It was interesting to read about a subject that I didn't know all that much about - the short-lived Players League. But ultimately, the book didn't have enough meat on the bones.

Dollar Sign on the Muscle: The World of Baseball Scouting by Kevin Kerrane

Another book long on my must-read list, and this one exceeded my expectations. This definitely makes the short list of the best baseball books I've read - it's a fascinating look into the world of scouts. There's a chapter on the Phillies' 1981 draft that's an interesting comparison to the draft chapter in Moneyball. There are stories of the pre-draft days, tales about cross-checkers in the post-draft era, and descriptions about life on the road. Definitely highly recommended.

I believe the book is out of print, so it's harder to find than the others, but it's well worth tracking down.


Sully said...

I'm actually about to read the Williams bio, and I'm looking forward to it. I do dread reading about the end, though. As bad as it sounds, John Henry got what was coming to him.

Warren said...

Hope you enjoy. When reading about the Alcor stuff a couple of years ago, it was unclear which side was really doing what Ted would have wanted. Lots of people are just viscerally icked out by the freezing, but that doesn't bother me. I just figured people were weirded out, and assumed John Henry was at fault simply because they were squeamish.

But after reading more, it's pretty clear that John Henry was a complete scumbag, so he probably just made the whole thing up in a sick attempt to somehow profit from it later (selling Ted Williams DNA or something).

John Henry's death is pretty low on the list of things that keep me up at night.

Tangotiger said...

Thank you kindly for the review of The Book.