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.