The Science of Hitting, by Ted Williams

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, by David James Duncan

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.

“Along Came Ruth,” by Ford Frick

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!

Ford_Frick_at_1937_All-Star_Game - Library of Congress
Ford Frick at the 1937 All-Star Game (Library of Congress)

Calico Joe, by John Grisham

Calico Joe - John Grisham

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.

This day in baseball: Waitkus is Comeback Player of the Year

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.

Eddie_Waitkus - Wikipedia
Wikipedia

“A Fisherman’s Tale,” Anonymous

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.

*

Ernest
Hemingway
Immortalized
Joe
DiMaggio
and
Joe
DiMaggio
Immortalized
Himself
And
So
Did
Ted Williams
that wonderful slugger from Boston.

Cobb: A Biography, by Al Stump

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.

Cobb book cover

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.

NLBM Tribute to Ernie Banks

Yesterday, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum hosted this talk with author Ron Rapoport about Ernie Banks. Rapoport is the author of the biography on Banks appropriately titled Let’s Play Two. This book is currently on my to-read list, but I look forward to getting to it, especially in the wake of this talk with the author. I love how Rapoport makes a point to stress how good of a ballplayer Banks was, a fact that sometimes gets overlooked as so much focus revolves around his sunny personality.

Today would have been Ernie Banks’s 90th birthday. Happy Birthday, Mr. Cub!

“Calling,” by Judy Katz-Levine

This piece is very nostalgic and a bit on the sad side. Judy Katz-Levine published this poem in 1990 as part of a collection entitled When the Arms of Our Dreams Embrace.

*

Falling asleep in the afternoon,
I forget that my father has died.
I anticipate him calling me up,
asking me how my writing is going,
and am I thinking about having children.
Making a joke or two. “Don’t worry,
Mom and I will never be lonely.”
Then I fall into deeper sleep, he
loses me, traveling in his car, the green
Chevrolet, to old baseball fields,
which are sweet with rye grass
and lush stadiums, his pals throwing
him the ball – “Give me some pepper, Al.”

The Big Fella, by Jane Leavy

I recently finished making my way through Jane Leavy’s biography on the Great Bambino himself, entitled The Big Fella.  Like anyone else, I have heard most of the stories, I’m aware of the ballplayer’s legendary status, and as a kid, I memorized the list of nicknames spouted off by the kids of The Sandlot.  However, this is the first actual Babe Ruth biography I have ever read.

Fair warning: this biography is quite the tome.  It’s not quite War and Peace, but sitting at over 600 pages, it’s not exactly Animal Farm, either.  In my opinion, though, the journey through this volume is worth the time.  Using the barnstorming tour Babe Ruth took with Lou Gehrig after the 1927 World Series as the framework for the book, Leavy injects details about Ruth’s life and analysis about his personality and character to paint a broad and detailed portrait of the man and the ballplayer.

My favorite feature of this book lies in how human it portrays the Babe.  Ruth often gets depicted as this happy-go-lucky, larger-than-life figure who transcends not only baseball, but American culture itself.  Not that Leavy ignores this facet of Ruth’s character.  In fact, she goes into great detail about how this perception of the Babe pervaded American thought even during his lifetime.  Ruth certainly lived large, and the public loved him so much, the press even willingly kept many of his indiscretions quite.  When some of those indiscretions did leak out, fans were more than willing to overlook them, finding these to be a part of the ballplayer’s charm.

Leavy’s biography doesn’t focus just on this, however.  Ruth’s life, especially as a youth, was not an easy one.  The author includes stories about his birth, early youth, his life at St. Mary’s, and his introduction to professional baseball.  She also talks about Ruth’s drinking and womanizing, and while she doesn’t forgive the Babe for these, Leavy does juxtapose that side of Ruth with his affinity for playing with and helping kids.

The book also delves deeply into Ruth’s relationship with his manager, Christy Walsh.  We get an overview of Ruth’s personal finances, and Leavy demonstrates how much the Babe profited from Christy Walsh’s management.  She conveys the impact Ruth and Walsh had on popular culture, foreshadowing the celebrity-obsessed society that followed them and continues to pervade our world today.

Leavy also does a good job giving us a glimpse into the Babe’s shortcomings as a family man and the impact this had on his daughters.  There is also a great exploration of Ruth’s life after baseball, including the disappointments he faced as he continuously got turned down for management roles.  Leavy goes into detail about his final days, as well, discussing his illness and, ultimately, his death.

Overall, I was impressed.  I did, at times, wish that the structure of the book followed a more linear path, rather than bouncing around Ruth’s life the way that it does, but given the amount of research and detail included in these pages, it’s a shortcoming I’m willing to overlook.