Quote of the day
Baseball is also a game of balance.
~Stephen King, Blockade Billy
Baseball is also a game of balance.
~Stephen King, Blockade Billy
The philosophies of Stoicism and Zen Buddhism have piqued my interest lately, so when I discovered that Shawn Green had a book about his experiences with Zen while playing baseball, I had to check it out. The Way of Baseball: Finding Stillness At 95 MPH is a hell of a catchy title, and in this short tome, Green talks about his experiences with finding Zen and stillness throughout his major league career.
Green mentions that he had had some previous interest in Eastern philosophies, but it was during his struggles at the plate early in his career in Toronto that he discovered how it could be applied in baseball. Green talks about hitting off the tee, repeatedly over weeks and weeks until it became a form of meditation. Hence forth, tee hitting became a staple in Green’s career.
When Green made the move from Toronto to the bigger stage in Los Angeles, he lost his hold on the stillness he had found with the Blue Jays. With a big contract and big expectations, Green found himself ruled by ego, pressuring himself to hit home runs, rather than just letting them happen. Consequently, his first year in LA turned out to be a disastrous season, and Green talks about the work it took to let go of the ego and return to stillness.
It’s a fascinating book, overall. If you’re familiar with the fundamentals of Zen, you won’t learn anything new about the philosophy in this book. It is interesting, however, to see those ideas applied to baseball. The book is short and a fairly easy read, too. If this kind of thing interests you, this one’s worth reading.
I recently finished listening to the audiobook version of former Yankee Paul O’Neill’s memoir, Swing and a Hit: Nine Innings of What Baseball Taught Me. While I could never bring myself to root for the Yankees, I did enjoy watching O’Neill play during his time in New York. He was one of those player who, when watching, you could always tell that he cared about the game and about playing it well.
This memoir, published in May 2022, focuses a lot on O’Neill’s thoughts and perspectives on hitting. And he talks about everything hitting-related — about his stride, his leg kick, his approach at the plate early in the at-bat versus with two strikes, facing left-handed pitchers, hitting against the shift, his conversations with other players in the game about their own approaches to hitting, and so on.
I found myself glad that I had just read Ted Williams’s The Science of Hitting not too long ago, because this book by O’Neill felt very much like a complement to the Williams text. In fact, Paul O’Neill references The Science of Hitting multiple times in his own work. There was little doubt, as I made my way through Swing and a Hit, that O’Neill worshipped Ted Williams. He even goes so far as to a phone call he received from Williams as speaking with “the voice of God.”
The book wasn’t entirely about hitting, though, as Paul O’Neill also chronicles his life and baseball career. He discusses his father’s influence, which was substantial in his life and career. O’Neill also delves into his relationships and views on players and managers around him. He discusses what it was like to be a player with the Reds when the Pete Rose gambling case was making headlines, describes what it was like to play with Derek Jeter, and also what a terrifying experience it was to face Randy Johnson’s pitching.
All-in-all, while I enjoyed the book, I do feel it was a bit lacking on the actual memoir side of things. It felt more like a MasterClass on hitting a baseball — again, like a complement to Ted Williams’s book. It’s worth the read if you’re into that sort of perspective, but if you’re looking for something more personal, this book won’t quite get you there.
Ted Williams’s The Science of Hitting has been on my radar for a few years now, though admittedly, since it has been so long since I last played ball, I wasn’t in any real hurry to read it. But now that I have, I’m glad that I did because even though I no longer play, I learned a lot from this book.
First published in 1971, The Science of Hitting serves as a guide on how to improve one’s performance at the plate. Even though it is a very slim volume, only 81 pages long, it is a goldmine on hitting technique and about the game as a whole. Ted Williams, with the help of John Underwood, manages to walk a fine line between elaborating on the technical aspects of hitting while maintaining a very readable style of writing.
Despite the fact that Williams originally wrote this book more than 50 years ago, the observations and advice within are timeless. Some of the advice is commonly heard today, such as being selective at the plate and making the pitcher work until they’ve got two strikes on you. Other bits of advice flies in the face of popular coaching today. For example, the recommendation to maintain a level swing, parallel to the ground, is something I heard throughout my playing days. Williams argues and demonstrates why a slight upward swing is the better approach. The book is full of pictures and diagrams depicting Williams’s teachings in a visual format.
Nevertheless, Williams’s approach to teaching the art of hitting is not strictly proscriptive. He provides numerous examples of variations on hitting styles, naming some of the greatest hitters in the game as examples of these variations. (As new editions of the book have been released, the lists of players named have been updated to include some who played in more recent years.) A hitter’s swing is unique to that hitter, so if what a player is doing is working, stick with it. If it’s not working, or if that hitter is looking to improve, then The Science of Hitting provides a number of things to consider.
This book doesn’t just stop at hitting, either. Williams briefly discusses pitching and touches on his thoughts on the approaches of various pitchers. He talks about what approaches work on the mound, which do not, and the importance of studying the game and being able to make adjustments.
As a whole, Ted Williams emphasizes the importance of practice, practice, practice. Given the number of factors that go into a single swing of the bat, this book is aptly named — hitting is a science. And in order to improve at it, players need to study, think, adjust, and continually practice.
The Brothers K is a novel published in 1992, and it tells the story of the Chance family, who live in Camas, Washington. The Chance family consists of father Hugh, mother Laura, brothers Irwin, Everett, Peter and Kincaid, and twin sisters Beatrice and Winifred. The story begins in the early 1950s and follows the family on their adventures and misadventures into the mid-1970s, driven by passions for baseball and for religion.
The title of the book, The Brothers K, is derived from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic, The Brothers Karamazov. Similar to Dostoevsky’s novel, Duncan’s tale revolves primarily around the four Chance brothers and their experiences growing up. The ‘K’ also serves as a reference to baseball, in which a ‘K’ symbolizes a strikeout.
Hugh Chance, the father, is a former minor league baseball pitcher. His career came to an abrupt end when a mill accident destroyed the thumb of his pitching hand. Papa Chance, as he is affectionately known, now works full time at the pulp mill in order to support his family.
Laura Chance, the mother, is a homemaker and is an extremely devout Seventh Day Adventist. Hugh’s devotion to baseball and Laura’s devotion to her religion frequently leads to arguments and disagreements in the Chance home, which, unsurprisingly, has an impact on the children.
Hugh finds himself able to return to baseball following a unique surgery that replaces his damaged thumb with his big toe. He begins a coaching/backup pitcher career that allows him to return to the game, though of course this also means a lot of time on the road. Laura begins a cleaning business in order to help out the family’s economic situation. The four sons grow up close and have many conversations both about baseball and about religion. As they become older, the differences between the four boys start to become more pronounced, but their devotion to one another remains firm.
Everett, the oldest son, is outspoken and brash, but he is also bighearted and a natural-born leader. Everett turns away from the church and goes on to speak out against the Vietnam War during his college years. He eventually burns his draft card and flees to Canada to avoid arrest.
The second oldest, Peter, has a world of natural athletic ability, but to the surprise of everyone, turns away from sports in order to pursue a life of spirituality. To the disappointment of his mother, however, Peter chooses to immerse himself in eastern religions. He attends college at Harvard and then earns a scholarship to go to India.
The third son, Irwin, is the most religiously devout of the boys. His life, and the lives of everyone in the Chance family, are radically impacted when Irwin’s girlfriend, Linda, becomes pregnant, and Irwin is drafted and sent to Vietnam shortly thereafter.
Kincaid is the youngest of the Chance boys and acts as narrator throughout the novel. He is probably the most neutral figure in the family, neither devoutly religious nor particularly gifted athletically, which makes him an ideal commentator on the family’s experiences. In spite of this (or maybe because of it), the reader learns less about Kincaid than about any of the other members of the Chance family.
I am going to keep this summary deliberately sparse, because there really is no good way to encapsulate the scope and complexity of this novel in a blog post. At 716 pages, and with all the different themes and conflicts taking place throughout, any competent English student could easily write 3 or 4 drastically different term papers on this novel, and that still wouldn’t scratch the surface of this book. There is a lot there, but it is well worth the journey.
When I reached the end of the novel, my first reaction was, “Damn, that’s a good book.” I can honestly say this is one of the best books I’ve ever read, and I have read many. Don’t let the page count nor the multifaceted nature of the story deter you — this book is rated highly on Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and probably any other book-related website where you can find it, and for good reason. This book made me angry at times and sad at times, but it also had me literally laughing out loud at times. I strongly recommend it.
This poem by Ford Frick ends with the line, “Nothing’s simpler than that!”, which is quite fitting, as this piece is pretty straightforward. This was published in Ford Frick’s memoir, Games, Asterisks, and People: Memoirs of a lucky fan.
You step up to the platter
And you gaze with flaming hate
At the poor benighted pitcher
As you dig in at the plate.
You watch him cut his fast ball loose,
Then swing your trusty bat
And you park one in the bleachers-
Nothing’s simpler than that!
It’s been a while since I last read a baseball novel. I’ve previously read The Firm and A Time to Kill, so when I discovered that John Grisham had written a book with a baseball theme, I knew it would be worth checking out.
Calico Joe takes place in two time periods: the present day (the novel was published in 2013) with flashbacks to the 1973 season. The book’s narrative mixes fact and fiction. Grisham introduces fictional players who interact with and participate on actual teams, namely the New York Mets and the Chicago Cubs. The fictional characters interact with actual people, such as Yogi Berra, Willie Mays, and Tom Seaver, and fictional games take place in real life stadiums. At the end of the novel, Grisham makes a point to include a note explaining just this, imploring, “[P]lease, all you die-hard fans, don’t read this with any expectation of accuracy. I have completely re-arranged schedules, rosters, rotations, records, batting orders, and I’ve thrown in some fictional players to mix it up with the real ones. This is a novel, so any mistake should be promptly classified as part of the fiction.”
The narrator of the tale is Paul Tracey, who, in 1973, was the eleven-year-old son of New York Mets pitcher, Warren Tracey. Paul is a massive baseball fan, and a solid Little League pitcher in his own right. However, his father is a man who parties as hard as he throws, frequently returning home drunk and turning on his own family. Thanks to Warren’s treatment, Paul’s interest in baseball eventually wans.
During the 1973 season, a rookie first baseman arrives in the majors for the Chicago Cubs — a man named Joe Castle, from Calico Rock, Arkansas. Castle’s major league career gets off to a rocket start, as he astonishes baseball fans across the country with home run after home run, shattering a number of rookie records. Calico Joe quickly becomes the idol of virtually every baseball fan in America, including the young Paul Tracey.
On August 24, 1973, the Chicago Cubs face off against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium. Warren Tracey is on the mound, and young Paul is in the stands, torn between rooting for his dad and for his hero, Calico Joe. In his first at-bat against Tracey, Joe Castle hits a home run. Feeling that Castle has shown him up, in his next plate appearance, Tracey throws a pitch that beans Castle right in the head.
In all the scenes taking place in the present day, the results of this one pitch continue to reverberate through the lives of both ballplayers and of the now-grown Paul Tracey. Paul has limited contact with his father, but when Warren is diagnosed with terminal cancer, Paul has an idea on how to bring some closure regarding Calico Joe.
I really enjoyed this book. The combination of baseball and John Grisham made it a page turner, though it’s certainly not your typical Grisham novel. It’s not a thriller, there’s no real mystery in the tale. It’s a simple, straightforward story, full of nostalgia, but not without its tensions. If you’re looking for a fun, casual way to while away a lazy afternoon, this is definitely worth picking up.
Seventeen months after being shot in the chest with a rifle by an obsessed fan, Eddie Waitkus was named the Comeback Player of the Year by the Associated Press on November 10, 1950. The Phillies’ infielder hit .284 that season and led the team with 102 runs scored, as he continued to be one of the best fielding first basemen in the league.
Waitkus’s story would provide part of the inspiration for Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, published in 1952.
This piece was published in 1942 and it references Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. In the novella, the main character, Santiago, idolizes DiMaggio and is a big Yankees fan. To Santiago, DiMaggio represents an ideal, and he compares himself against the ballplayer as a way to measure his own success and worth.
that wonderful slugger from Boston.
I recently finished making my way through Al Stump’s biography on Ty Cobb, simply titled Cobb: A Biography. I am aware of the criticism this book has received — Stump, it seems, went out of his way to cast Cobb in a less-than-flattering light, even embellishing or making up stories as he did so. Nevertheless, I found this biography intriguing.
Al Stump had actually ghostwritten Ty Cobb’s autobiography, My Life in Baseball: The True Record. According to Stump, Cobb was far from being an easy individual to get along with, and there seems to be a consensus that Cobb’s autobiography had been sanitized considerably in order to paint Cobb in a better light. Stump claimed that his motivation for writing this biography after Cobb’s death was to share his own perception of the Georgia Peach. That being said, while it is widely-accepted that Cobb had many faults, this book reads like a revenge. In fact, the original title of this book, when it was first published in 1994, was Cobb: The Life and Times of the Meanest Man in Baseball. The current title actually belongs to a reworked and expanded edition of the book, published in 1996 after Stump’s death.
As a man, Stump paints Cobb as extremely combative, impossible to please, and unreasonably demanding. Clearly, Cobb’s life was a tortured one, what with the strange circumstances surrounding his father’s death when Cobb was still a young man, and his displeasure with the hand dealt him came out in his racism and in how he treated his own wife and children. On the other hand, Cobb the baseball player had an unmatched work ethic, demanding the best of himself as well as of those who played around him. Stump put a lot of focus also on the rivalry between Cobb and Babe Ruth, but in spite of the animosity between the two men, I also sensed a grudging respect between the two. In addition, Stump spent a lot of time exploring Cobb’s business ventures, investments, and his talent for making money.
As a reader, I confess to enjoying the journey through this book. The character of Cobb, as depicted in these pages, is a fascinating one. And while many of the stories in said pages have been discredited, no doubt their presence in the book is part of what makes it so fascinating. I have yet to read Cobb’s original autobiography, and while I’m at it, Charles Leerhsen’s 2016 biography, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, is also on the to-read list. It seems to me that one simply cannot read one without also delving into the other two — at least, not if one wants a truly well-rounded picture of the great Ty Cobb.