Wednesday, June 10, 2009

From the Shelves of the Paco Library

The 2009 baseball season is well under way, and much to my surprise, my beloved Detroit Tigers are in first place in their division. How long that will last, nobody knows (although, through long experience, I have learned not to get my hopes up too much).

The great thing about baseball is you don’t have to be a walking rule book, or even a fan, to enjoy the history, lore and traditions of the game. Today’s “Shelves” piece highlights three enjoyable books on the national pastime that should have broad appeal.

Fungoes, Floaters and Fork Balls: A Colorful Baseball Dictionary, by Patrick Ercolanao

In this book you will find definitions of baseball terminology, slang and the rules of the game. Ever wondered about those cryptic references to the “infield fly rule” occasionally spouted by sportscasters? Well, here’s what it’s all about:

infield fly rule: n. A rule that declares the batter out when he hits a catchable fly ball into fair territory of the infield and there are less than two outs and first, first and second bases, or first, second and third bases are occupied by runners. In such a situation, an umpire immediately calls the ball an infield fly, thus declaring the batter out and warning the runners that they may advance at their own risk. The rule prevents infielders from purposely dropping a fly ball and then easily forcing the baserunners, who would ordinarily stay at their bases on an infield fly.”

Americans are great practitioners of the art of the metaphor, and baseball offers innumerable opportunities for…er…metaphornicating. Here are a few examples:

chin music: A brushback pitch, usually a fastball that goes “singing” underneath the batters chin.

frozen rope: A straight and sharply hit line drive.

iron hands: The hands of a fielder who frequently allows balls to bounce, or “clang”, off his glove.

The dictionary also has a generous sampler of French baseball terms (used in Canada). Just a taste:

Going, going, gone! = Et elle est partie!

Pinch hitter = frapper auxiliaire

And, of course, since baseball is popular in many Hispanic countries, there is a section on some basic Spanish terminology, too:

Base hit = bola bateada con éxito

Hit a fly ball = pegar una planchita

If you equip yourself with this book, the next time you get into an argument with somebody over the etymology of, say, the ephus pitch or a Baltimore chop, and he says, “G’wan, look it up!”, you’ll be able to do that very thing.
* * * *

The Pitcher, by John Thorn and John B. Holway

Just about everything worth knowing about pitchers and their art is contained within the covers of this book: statistics, the physics of the different kinds of pitches (fastball, curve, screwball and more), and biographical information on men, both great and obscure, who have taken the mound to match wits and ability against the hereditary foe, the batter.

“The pitcher runs the show. He holds the ball and nothing happens until he lets go. He is in control…The pitcher is not simply an athlete; he is an artist in that while his talent shapes the game, he never knows beforehand whether his mysterious gift – his ‘stuff’ – will be with him on a given day. He creates his work of art pitch by pitch, each pitch carrying a part of himself bearing his unique mark. The ball may be released but is still, magically, under his control and, if it is not hit, returns to him. The magic resides in his arm, that best friend and most dreaded enemy, which a pitcher may talk about as if it were detached from his body and going about on its own.”

The book is full of wonderful anecdotes. Here are a few snippets from the section on one of my favorite baseball players, Bobo Newsom.

“Norman Louis Newsom was sometimes called Buck but was usually called Bobo because that was what he called everyone else. A good ol’ boy from South Carolina, Bobo was the Dizzy Dean of the American League.”

“Newsome was given the honor of opening the 1936 season in Washington before President Franklin Roosevelt and a capacity crowd. In the third inning, third baseman Ossie Bluege fielded a bunt and fired to first. Bobo forgot to duck, and the ball caught him on the side of the face. He clutched his face and staggered in agony; manager Bucky Harris told him to sit out for the rest of the game. ‘Naw,’ Newsom said, ‘Ol’ FDR came out to see Bobo, and he’s gonna see him all the way.’ He won the game 1-0. Afterward, they found out his jaw was broken in two places. It had to be wired shut, cutting down on his loquaciousness for a short time anyway.”

“He won twenty-one games in 1940 [with the Detroit Tigers], plus two in the World Series. When Bob Feller received a record salary of $30,000, Bobo topped him with $35,000…With his new wealth, Newsom bought a car with neon lights that spelled ‘Bobo’ and a horn that played ‘Tiger Rag’, and he dined nightly on quail and champagne…”

Excellent for a long read, or just occasional browsing, this book belongs on the shelf of everyone interested in baseball history.
* * * *

The Ultimate Baseball Book, edited by Daniel Okrent and Harris Lewine

This book astonishes by fully living up to its ambitious title. Outstanding articles by Red Smith, Robert Creamer, Wilfred Sheed, and many others, combined with hundreds of rare photographs, provide a chronological history of the game through essays on the great players, teams, games, pennant races and Series.

Here’s a little something from Red Smith to whet your appetite:

“Pepper Martin looked like an outsize bird of prey. When he ran he took flight, wings beating, beak splitting the wind, and when he stole a base he swooped down on it with a predator’s headlong dive. ‘The Wild Horse of the Osage’, he was called by Harrison J. Weaver, trainer of the St. Louis Cardinals, and the sobriquet caught on during the 1931 World Series when this upstart from Oklahoma stole Mickey Cochrane’s drawers in broad daylight.”

If I could only have one book on baseball, this is the one I would choose.

Update: Friend and commenter, Captain Heinrichs, provides a rare look at early baseball in Canada.


TimT said...

Being an Australian who never got really involved in sport anyway, this post is doubly puzzling to me, but that first book you reviewed there reminded me of this great Ogden Nash poem, an ABC about baseball. My favourite line is 'I is for Me'...

cac said...

Being antipodean like Tim T, I'm similarly puzzled (I struggle to understand cricket and have grown up with that). This book might be useful though to help me understand Michael Lewis' Moneyball which I find fascinating but it describes things that might as well be elements of a black mass for all I understand of them. Paco, is this a book you've read and does he know his baseball?

bruce said...

Baseball in Sydney:

I'm reminded of Ring Lardner, who I first heard about in Catcher in the Rye...

Paco said...

cac: No, I'm not familiar with Lewis' book.

kc said...

Paco, I'm a fairly recent fan of baseball (though I liked listening to Cubs, WSox & eventually Twins games on the radio as a kid, and eagerly listened to World Series games on the transistor radio someone would bring to school), there's a term used I simply don't get. What in the devil is 'a can of corn???'

Thanks for your time, I always enjoy your book reviews!

Yojimbo said...


"A can of corn" is just a lazy fly ball to the outfield.

Dave C said...

Nice to see another Tiger's fan outside of Michigan.

Paco said...

Dave C.: Brother!

Anonymous said...

As another cricket lover, I thought the LBW law was complicated!

I reckon the infield fly rule must have been written by an EU bureaucrat.

Kevin B

Becky said...

The Ultimate Baseball Book looks like a good one. Both my husband and I are baseball fans and like to read
baseball books
when we have time. I actually purchased Kyle Garlett's latest book, "What Were They Thinking?: The Brainless Blunders that Changed Sports History" for my husband's birthday and was hoping to find one more to add to it. I am going to see if I can find "The Ultimate Baseball book- thanks for the great tip!

cac said...

Paco, you may enjoy "Moneyball", or possibly it's regarded as heresy by all right thinking baseball fans. I found it fascinating. It's the story of the Oakland A's, apparently one of the worst and poorest of teams who very rapidly got better by mining the reams of data baseball throws up and finding and buying undervalued players very cheaply. It's as much about business strategy as baseball and provided a partial glimpse into a world that might as well have been on Mars for all the sense it made. But very interesting all the same.

Irobot said...

Hi Paco,

Baseball is now being shown live in Australia on the digital sports channel. It is a great game and but many Australians would not be aware of its amazing history.

I enjoyed Baseball - A Film by Ken Burns but I don't think that we got the whole 9 innings. I have a copy of the tapes, yes tapes, and there are only about nine hours of program. A quick Google shows that the full documentary is actually 25 hours so I feel slightly cheated. However, I still loved it.

I already had a passing acquaintance with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Wrigley Field (Thanks in part to the Blues Brothers)The Dodgers and other teams and the best comedy routine on baseball by Bud Abbott and Lou Coustello. This series filled in some gaps and I think that it made me love baseball for its history not just for the game.

Getting to a major league game is on our list of things to do, see, get to eventually.

I'll have to get a copy of The Ultimate Baseball Book to round further my education on the history of baseball.

Thanks for another great post.

Paco said...

cac: That sounds like a fascinating book; I'll have to get hold of it.

Becky & Irobot: My edition of The Ultimate Baseball Book is pretty old, but I believe it has been updated. It's a wonderful browser.

Minicapt said...

The Babe's Official First Homer: