Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Advance Book Review: One Nation Under Baseball by John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro

Release Date: April 1, 2017

Sports are seen by many people as escape from the real-world and any social and political issues that might exist therein. And while a day at the ballpark can be an immersive experience, the game is shaped by (and occasionally shapes) societal forces. Perhaps no decade demonstrates the particular connection between baseball and American history better than the 1960's, which was a transformational time for both sectors. In One Nation Under Baseball, John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro present a readable and insightful look at this intersection.

The notion that "sports are divorced from politics" is a bit unbelievable in this day and age (and the same largely held true 60 years ago). Rather than beat down on this strawman, Florio and Shapiro chronicle the political and cultural forces that shaped baseball during the 60's, taking the connection as a given and looking instead at how these forces impacted the game. One Nation Under Baseball touches on the major subjects of the period, including integration and civil rights, the elimination of the reserve clause and embiggening of the player's union, and the Vietnam War and the rise of the counter-culture. Each movement is placed in its proper historical context, though sometimes I felt the authors went into too much detail describing some basic information about events such as the March on Washington and suburbanization of America. The reader is likely already pretty familiar with those events and the authors didn't tread upon any new territory. The book does shine in linking baseball to these shifts, such as Hank Aaron's account of listening to restaurant workers smashing the dinnerware he just had eaten on because none of the restaurant's patrons wanted to eat off the plate of a black person.

The book reads like a documentary film (which isn't surprising given that co-author Shapiro has worked on a handful of them), frequently relying on extended passages of quotes from interviews as well as primary source materials. Everything on baseball is well-researched and the book is greatly enriched by drawing from these sources.

One Nation Under Baseball especially shines when discussing the evolution of baseball media. The 1960's marked a transitional time for newspaper writers. Impacted tremendously by the rise of television and an extended newspaper strike in New York, a new generation of writers called  "chipmunks" realized that they needed to shift their approach. Now that fans could figure out who won through watching the news, these new scribes (including George Vecsey of The New York Times and Larry Merchant of The Philadelphia Daily News) focused instead on more long-form articles that provided details on the players' personalities and offered deeper analysis. Also benefiting from primarily writing for afternoon papers with later deadlines, these writers really leveraged their access to players and managers and presented a unique perspective that other mediums couldn't match at the time. The decade also saw the first real efforts of some players to pull back the curtain of big-league life and expose the life of a player, warts and all (but especially the warts) to the general public. This reached a fever pitch(er) with the publication of Jim Bouton's diary of his 1969 season, Ball Four, with its tales of beaver-hunting, drinking, and other sordid affairs (at least to his early-70's audience that hadn't yet been desensitized to athletic indiscretions through exposure to countless incriminating athletic Instagram selfies). The old-guard sportswriters of Dick Young and Jimmy Cannon adhered to a code that generally protected players from such scrutiny, and the 1960's marked the start of a movement of player exposure that would only get more and more intimate (see previous parenthetical statement about incriminating Instagram selfies) as time went on.

Overall, One Nation Under Baseball was a quality read that is worth seeking out for anyone fitting into the Venn diagram intersection of being interested in baseball and history. This is the second baseball-related book I've read from University of Nebraska Press this year and both were considerably entertaining and light reads. Definitely seek this out if the premise sounds intriguing to you.

7 / 10 

Friday, 17 February 2017

Advance Book Review: Macho Row by William Kashatus

Release Date: March 1, 2017

The increased democratization of publishing and the rise of long-tail, niche content have likely lowered the bar for what constitutes a team/season worth memorializing in a book. Thankfully, the 1993 Philadelphia Phillies, a ragtag assemblage of castoffs from other teams that went from last place to first and the World Series, make for good reading. William Kashatus' new book on the subject, Macho Row, is a light and enjoyable volume on one of the quirkier MLB teams of recent memory. 

Macho Row is structured like most "single-season-retrospective" books, with a particular focus on the colorful characters employed by the Phillies in 1993. Kashatus devotes a good bit of his attention on the denizens "Macho Row," an especially-raucous section of the clubhouse where stars Darren Daulton, Lenny Dykstra, John Kruk, Mitch Williams, Pete Incavlia, and Dave Hollins resided. The book delves into the backstories of each member and these extended profiles were the highlight of the book for me. Dykstra, who was bursting at the seams with equal parts passion, hubris, and recklessness and the deceptively-clever Kruk were particularly compelling to read about. Kashatus got to interview many major players for the book and these interviews helped further enrich the sketches of each player. Macho Row doesn't actually get to the start of the season until about a third through the book, with extended passages on about half of Macho Row as well as some background on the Phillies and how their fortunes took a pretty severe dip after winning the World Series in 1980 and the NL East in 1983.   

There are a few more biographical digressions peppered in the rest of the book but once the account of the season starts the book can get a bit monotonous. Kashatus seems to give brief summaries of each series over the season with a few basic statistics and noting the top performers. While most readers likely do not remember the game-by-game fate of the Phillies in 1993 it still doesn't make for the most gripping prose and occasionally feels like reading a massive volume of Associated Press game recaps (a frequent gripe I have with this type of book in general). This is further exacerbated by the fact that the Phils were largely cruising through their 1993 campaign, beginning every month of the season in first place. Besides a September slump that briefly injected a bit of suspense into the NL East title race, there wasn't a ton of drama. The fact that a rag-tag team of castoffs that finished in last place the previous year won their division the following season was remarkable, but the way they did so was rather humdrum (which makes their dominance even more remarkable, but not always the most captivating reading material when recounted). Kashatus' occasional asides on baseball's "code" also aren't going to be tremendously illuminating for a reader who is a big enough baseball fan to pick up a book about the Phillies' 1993 campaign. Furthermore, such an emphasis doesn't make a ton of sense given that several major Phillies such as Curt Schilling and Lenny Dykstra blatantly broke key components of the code during the season and over the course of their careers. 

Those issues aside, the overall reading experience is a pleasant one and I'm ultimately glad I read Macho Row. Kashatus, a historian and college professor who has previously written books on American and baseball history, writes well and does an excellent job linking the trends of the 1993 season with what came before it and what followed, such as how the Phillies served as the inspiration for Billy Beane's Moneyball philosophy. Macho Row is a good read that will help pass the time until Opening Day. I don't think it quite has the "crossover" appeal to be worth being read by non-Phillies fans as if you're a big baseball fan you probably already are familiar with these players' basic backgrounds and careers but Phillies fans should get a lot out of it and enjoy revisiting one of the team's better seasons with some additional insight and interviews from the squad. 

6.5  / 10