April 24, 2014

The Baseball Bookshelf: Dodger Favorites for Spring Training Reading

Maybe it’s the summer-like weather we’ve been having in LA lately, but the anticipation is starting to build around the arrival of Dodgers’ Spring Training games in just a few weeks.  One of my favorite traditions of this time of year is to dust off some of my favorite baseball books, while also looking for some new ones.  Here are a few that I’ve loved over the years, and I welcome you to share your favorites as well! 

Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball
by George Will

This was the book that transformed me from a casual baseball fan into someone who truly loved all of the small nuances of the game.  Will’s look inside at what makes a great manager (Tony La Russa), hitter (Tony Gwinn), pitcher (Orel Hershiser) and defensive player (Cal Ripken, Jr.) is fascinating for any baseball fan (even from a political commentator).  I actually find myself thinking back to many moments in the book throughout every season.  In my mind, it’s a classic.

Wait Till Next Year: A Memoir
by Dorris Kearns Goodwin

While Goodwin is perhaps best known as a Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential historian, her touching memoir describes growing up in New York in the 1950′s and the special relationship she had with her father through their shared love of the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Plus, anyone that masters keeping score at age six is ok with me.  A fantastic look at the Dodger teams of Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges, Duke Snider, Roy Camanella and Pee Wee Reese through the eyes of a fan.  One of my favorites of all time.

Nine Innings
by Daniel Okrent

You might ask why I have book about a June 1982 game between the Brewers and the Orioles on this list.  What makes this book special is that the author actually disects one game, pitch by pitch, and gives the fan a great insight into the psychology of the game.  Not as great as Men at Work in my opinion, but it’s another writer’s take on the myriad of subtle moments that occur throughout the course of a game.

The Last of the Best
by Jim Murray

Growing up in Los Angeles, I became hooked on both sports and writing through the words and style of the great Jim Murray, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Los Angeles Times.  One of only four sportswriters to win the Pulitzer, Murray was a master wordsmith that focused on the people behind the moments, rather than what happened during the games themselves.  The Last of the Bestis a collection of Murray’s last 90 columns in the 1990′s and there are a few great ones about Walter O’Malley that are worth the read (to say nothing of the rest of the book).  If you’re a fan of the story behind the action on the field, then this is a great book for you.

Birth of a Fan
edited by Ron Fimrite

This is a neat little collection of essays where writers such as Roger Angell, Roy Blount, Jr., William Kennedy, George Plimpton, Robert Whiting and Jonathan Yardley (among others) recall their early days when they first fell in love with the game of baseball.  It always seems like an appropriate read as Spring Training approaches.

100 Things Dodgers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die
by Jon Weisman

And what list of baseball books would be complete without the latest and greatest by fellow Dodger blogger and author Jon Weisman of the esteemed Dodger Thoughts.  The book is a treasure trove of stories, anecdotes, history and more going back the team’s days in Brooklyn.  It’s hard to describe this book in just a few lines, but it’s safe to say that this is definitely a book that all Dodger fans need to read.

I thought the following quote from Phil Gurnee at True Blue LA summed it up better than I ever could: “I’ve finished the book but chapter five [about the Kirk Gibson home run] alone is worth the book. The title suggests a fluff book but it is anything but a fluff book. In someone else’s hands this book might have been much less then what it is. In Jon’s capable hands he will enlighten and entertain you about the team you love. Anybody who calls themselves a Dodger fan should be ordering this book not only for themselves but for any and all of their Dodger friends and family. The paperback is the perfect companion to read between innings while watching the game on TV or even at the ballpark.”

Now let’s hear from you on your favorite baseball books!

Gettin’ Psyched for March 29!

So while we’ve already picked out a few of the highlights of the Dodgers Spring Training schedule, there is one game that promises to be full of memories as the 50th Anniversary celebration of the team’s arrival in LA rolls on.  Yup, the Dodgers are going to play one exhibition game in the Los Angeles Coliseum, the first home for the team during the 1958 and 1959 seasons while Dodger Stadium was being constructed.  Personally, I can’t wait.  I remember my grandparents telling me and my brothers about going to games there (including the 1959 World Series).  Check out this image to see what how crazy the dimensions were (and keep it in mind as you read the excerpt below).

For fans of LA sports, there is simply no better writer than the late, great (and Pulitzer Prize winning) Jim Murray of The Los Angeles Times.  Here’s how he described the Dodgers arrival in Los Angeles in his autobiography, which is simply titled Jim Murray:

 ”O’Malley had a choice of Wrigley Field or or The Coliseum to showcase his team when it arrived.  There was no contest.  Wrigley Field, which he had purchased along with the franchise rights to LA from Phil Wrigley, was a 24,000 seat replica of Chicago’s Wrigley Field.  The Coliseum had 92,000 seats – from about 28,000 of which you could actually see the game.

O’Malley, who never had trouble adding, had no trouble opting for the 92,000 seats.  The baseball establishment was aghast.  I remember the commissioner of all baseball, Ford Frick himself, taking to the airways to deplore what would happen to the grand old game in this monstrosity of a ballpark.  Frick, who had been his biographer, always worried what would happen to Babe Ruth’s home run records.

To be sure, The Coliseum’s dimensions were a little startling.  To squeeze a ballpark in, left field was a bare 250 feet from home plate.  So they put up a 4o foot wire mesh fence.  ‘There goes Babe Ruth’s record!  Also Roger Maris’!” harrumphed Red Smith.  “Willie Mays’ll bunt over that thing.”

It was a Pittsburgh pitcher, Bob Friend, who first tipped me to the essential characteristics of the Wall.  “You’ll get a lot of lazy high flys that will go over.  But, you’ll get a lot of line drive hits that Willie Mays’ll hit that would go out for homers anywhere else in the world-but they’ll crash into that fence for a single.  It’ll even out.”

He proved prophetic.  The most home runs any Dodger ever hit in a year while they were playing in the Coliseum was 25 – Gil Hodges, 1959.  A Dodger pitcher, Johnny Podres, also accommodated himself to the geometry of the park.  “You just get’em to hit to right field,” he said.  “It’s 440 to the right field wall.  It’s inhuman.”

The moral of the story: You can play baseball anywhere.  Even indoors, as they were shortly to prove.”

 Come on, how can you not want to go to this game?