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Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Book Review: Press Box: Red Smith's Favorite Sports Stories

Red Smith is considered one of the greatest sportswriters of all time. I can't say I've read any of his work, other than this book's foreword. And in that foreword, Smith claims that the works included aren't necessarily the greatest, but that they are enjoyable.

Press Box is a digest of sports stories, as you might gather. The stories were originally found in newspapers, magazines, and books. And all are fairly long - all 18 stories average about 10 pages each. Some are written by sportswriters, others by other authors. Some written literally as the events unfolded in front of them, others compiled decades after the stories were first created.

"Dempsey vs. Carpentier" follows a major boxing event; the story begins describing patrons flowing into the arena to take their seats, moving through all of the lesser fights bit by bit, before reaching the big fight everyone came for. Written by Irvin S. Cobb, it was an interesting read that painted a vivid picture of the day; his words really help the reader visualize not only the match itself but the surroundings and atmosphere. Cobb wrote the story on the spot, with individual portions being sent as they were written to the newspaper to be prepared for publication.

On the other hand, Red Grange's story was told in "The Ghost of the Gridiron" by W.C. Heinz nearly 40 years after Grange played football in Chicago. Grange wasn't necessarily proud of his accomplishments on the field, and that sentiment is portrayed well in Heinz's biography.

This is a sports story book, and most of the stories aren't baseball. But there are a few:

"The Best Team Ever" idolizes the 1927 Yankees, while the 1962 Mets are called "The Worst Team Ever". Grantland Rice wrote "The Big Fellow" when creating a tribute to his friend, Babe Ruth. And Ted Williams' final game was reported on by John Updike.

The topics are some of the biggest in their respective sports, especially early in the book. But I'm not jaded; I'm glad to read yet again about the 1927 Yankees. And I'm happy to hear even more about Babe Ruth, despite him being mentioned in almost every single baseball book ever written. I've never read about boxing or football, either.

The writing, however, leans toward hyperbole. When you're writing about the "greatest" or the "worst" in a sport, and when you're trying to paint a certain picture of your subject, the language and writing style becomes almost formulaic. A nearly-Sopranos episode-style ending. The 18 stories in the book all look at the greatest or the worst. There's so much amazement. Such attitude, talent, and pride.

With 18 stories by 18 authors, each "chapter" has its own style and flow. And this is seen most in "Dempsey vs. Carpentier". Here's an example:
Conspicuous at the front, where the lumber-made cliffs of the structure shoal off into broad flats, is that type which is commonest of all alongside a fight ring. He is here in numbers amounting to a host. There must be thousands of him present. He is the soft-fleshed, hard-faced person who keeps his own pelt safe from bruises, but whose eyes glisten and whose hackles lift at the prospect of seeing somebody else whipped to a souffle. He is the one who, when his favorite pug is being hammered to a sanguinary Spanish omelet, calls out: "That's all right, kid, he can't hurt you." I see him countlessly repeated. For the anonymous youths who in the overtures are achieving a still greater namelessness by being put violently to sleep he has a listless eye. But wait until the big doings start. Then will his gills pant up and down as his vicarious lusting for blood and brute violence is satisfied.
This paragraph is describing the fans attending a boxing event. Reading this particular story was painful. I had to read entire paragraphs multiple times just to understand what is happening. That paragraph, and the fight it attempts to describe, happened in 1921, nearly 100 years ago. Did the people of 100 years ago use words like hackles? saguinary? vicarious? My autocorrect dictionary doesn't even recognize countlessly or namelessness.

It is writing like this that made me put down the book. I just had no interest in reading about sports I don't have an interest in, in a headache-inducing style, full of over-importance. To be fair, most of the book is written more accessibly. But every article puts its subject on a pedestal. Every subject is an idol to be worshiped.

I read all of the baseball stories and a few from other sports. But I've found myself having no interest in reading many of the others. Too much toasting, not enough meat. In the end, the writers were too invested in glorifying their subjects. Perhaps if I had read one chapter - one story - every month from this book, I could have enjoyed it more.

Let me sip my Jack and Coke. Don't force your straight, aged whisky down my throat by the bottle.

This was my third book of the year. I didn't finish it from cover to cover, but I consider it finished. And as February comes to a close, I'm moving right along in my quest to read at least 12 books this year. In fact, I'll finish my current book soon; if not this weekend by the end of next week.

Until next time...

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Book Review: October 1964

My posting has been sporadic for a few reasons. First and foremost, I've been suffering from allergies the last couple of weeks. It's just left me feeling uninterested in thinking (despite what you might think, writing my posts do require some brain power). Second, I've been working on projects instead of writing - the projects I've been working on have been generally low effort, and I might not be at home next month or later in the year; now is the best time to get things done, right? Finally, there aren't many things to write about. I have post ideas but I'd rather just save them for later due to the two previous reasons.

Not getting in the way of posting is reading. I set a goal this year to read at least one book a month, and I've almost exclusively been reading while riding the train, with some reading during lunch at work. I started the year off with a quick trivia book that I polished off in just a few hours. And a few weeks later I finally started my second book.

This post is quite long; there is a very brief summary at the end if you just want to know my opinion of the book.
David Halberstam got his start as a journalist in the 1960s, covering the Vietnam War and Civil Rights movement, before focusing more on history books, especially sportswriting. His 1981 book The Breaks of the Game, about the 1979-80 basketball season, was his first entry in the field; this was followed by a book about rowing before he wrote his first baseball book. Summer of '49, published in 1989, is a book I've seen several times on the shelf; I own the book, after all, though it's sitting in the US so I've never read it. His second book is the one you see above; he would write one more baseball book about the 1940s Red Sox in 2003.

October 1964 is mostly about the World Series that year between the Cardinals and the Yankees, but the actual games themselves feel like almost an afterthought in the book itself. There are 31 chapters, plus a prologue and epilogue, over 373 pages (in my book's printing, at least). But the six World Series games, which take up six chapters, fill less than 10% of the book (about 35 pages). Granted, an average of six pages or so per game is a lot; the text in this book is pretty small and close together, so a six-page account of a single game has a lot of detail.

The first 25 chapters, instead of talking about October 1964, talk about the events leading up to that year's championship tournament. There are plenty of recaps of teams' months; game scores, stats, and gameplay narrative has its place. But a large portion of this book takes place off the field or between the pitches. And many of the stories take place before the 1964 season, and sometimes afterward.

Take chapter 11. At first glance, it appears to look at how St. Louis' remedied their troubles in June. In fact, the first sentence in that chapter is: "In mid-June the St. Louis Cardinals were struggling." The first five (of 20-plus pages) in the chapter discuss the timeline of how the Bill Devine attempted to fill a hole in the outfield.
From that point, the narrative turns to Lou Brock, his struggles in Chicago from 1962 to mid 1964, and his adjustment to playing for the Cardinals. That's seven pages. The story then shifts to Buck O'Neil, the man who had scouted Brock, and how he came to be a scout after playing in the Negro Leagues. There go another seven pages, traveling all the way back to the 1940s. The remaining seven pages are about O'Neil's scouting of Brock in the 1950s and Brock's progression through the minor leagues, leading up to his debut in 1961.

Reading the book written in this fashion definitely took some getting used to. It's not a linear progression of events. The main narrative goes off on tangents, almost like cutaways in a Family Guy episode, except these cutaways actually have to do with the main story. If the book were to be turned into a movie, I suppose those would all be flashbacks, with the occasional flash forward.

That said, Halberstam's stories are interesting. Never once did I think "Man, I he should have left out this entire section on Buck O'Neil" or "Do I really need to hear about Mickey Mantle's struggles in so much detail?"

He discusses a lot of the social issues taking place in the US and in baseball around that time as well; there is mention of the changing press style, a lot of discussion about racism, and many pages are devoted to front office and salary issues.

I think if Halberstam had just written about the season itself, or just focused solely on the World Series itself, there wouldn't be so much interest in the outcome. Yes, I could easily search Wikipedia for the results of the 1964 World Series, and I'm sure I could piece together some of the stories of the teams and the players from that site and perhaps some others. But as I read the book, I found myself actually appreciating many of the players more than I ever did before.

Bob Gibson was a great pitcher; I've known that for a long time. He was a fierce competitor and he went through a lot given the time he was playing and where he was playing. But I feel that, after reading the book, I understand him a lot more and respect him even more than before. The same can be said for Lou Brock and any of the other players Halberstam goes into detail about. And even many of the players he only "mentions" a few times.

The extra stories - the details about the front office, the players' histories, the personalities - slowly build to the relatively quickly discussed Series itself. While there is a moral message against racism in his story (and how racism in the Yankees organization might have been a contributing factor to the end of their dynasty), the book's strongest point is its painting of the personalities, and that kept me going from page to page.
In fact, as a result, I've been inspired to add a few more cards to my collection. Bob Gibson is already there, but lately I've added cards of Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, and Casey Stengel, and have been looking for others mentioned in the book.

October 1964 and Summer of '49 by Halberstam bookend the Yankees dynasty, and probably would be best read as a set. I'm not sure how exactly Teammates, about the 1940s Red Sox, would fit in as a trilogy. But I am much more interested in '49 at this point, and the stories I hope it has to tell as well. And as a bit of a history fan, I have to think that some of his other books might be worth checking out at some point as well.

TL;DR: October 1964 is a great read, and I highly recommend it for the stories about the personalities, even more so than the overall story the book tells. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

BayStars B*Spirit Team Issue Cards 2016-2019

Many teams have their own card sets; MLB teams have had card giveaways for decades, and Japanese teams have their own sets.

The BayStars sets seem to be comprehensive, containing every player on the roster at the time of issue. I call these "B*Spirit" given the notation on the backs. This also distinguishes them from other BayStars sets; the past two seasons saw team-issued (or at least, team-sanctioned) pack based sets. (I opened a box of one of these a couple months ago; they are technically issued by Produce216, but don't carry TIC logos or copyrights.)

I was happy to grab a big lot of cards from the past several years in hopes of finding some Rami-chan singles I didn't have and filling in some gaps. I was successful on both fronts; you'll see the Ramirez cards included below, and for several of the years, I grabbed one card from the stack for the type collection.

Note that, to save space, I've left these images pretty small. But you can enlarge them by clicking on them, or right-clicking and opening in a new window for the full size window. Of course, if you're on mobile, that might be more difficult. Sorry.
 The 2016 set was the most represented in this lot. It is my favorite set, so that was a bonus.
 If you didn't notice, the backgrounds are images of Yokohama Stadium. What I didn't notice until now was that the cards could actually be pieced together like a puzzle to make a big stadium image.
 Not exciting are the poses. I bet you can tell who all of the pitchers and catchers are just by looking at the photos. The straight-on mug shot on the back is pretty plain, too, though I like the isolated facsimile autographs. There are interesting inspirational quotes on the back. I don't know how or why they were chosen.
 There's Rami-chan (Alex Ramirez). And two backup backup backup catchers. It's a nice set!
 I only have eight cards from 2017. But there's another Ramirez. This time, the background is black-and-white, though it looks like you could make a full stadium image by piecing the right backgrounds together. Backs are similar to the year before, including the same quotes for each player.
 Here's 2018. I have 14 of these, but none of Ramirez. The quotes seem to have changed, though again the front has an image of the stadium. I can't tell for sure, but there might be two different angles.
 I think the cards look better overall because the backs have more color, though the quotes are back, in the same place. Those numbers, by the way, are jersey numbers, and are the only numbering on the cards, making BayStars B*Spirit sets skip-numbered.
Finally, 2019. And finally, no more stadium puzzles. Instead, we have giant players standing in the Yokohama skyline, with a background of the entire stadium. Between the player and the stadium is a giant WordArt rendering of the player's name, fitting on two to four lines. The backs have another angle of the skyline with a second pose instead of just a headshot. And the quote lines are back. Again.

I still feel 2016 is the best design of these four years. What do you think?