Six baseball books that don’t steal signs
Today was supposed to be Opening Day. Well, it was supposed to be a lot of things. But instead, baseball fans are watching old Home Run Derbies on ESPN and listening to previous Opening Days on MLB Radio. It makes you long for real baseball, even for its flaws.
Before plague struck America, with the revelations that the 2017 World Champion Houston Astros cheated by stealing signs, baseball became surprisingly relevant again. In a sports world dominated by football (even of the XFL kind), the “national pastime” hadn’t been at the forefront since the Steroid Era. Heroes are hard to come by in MLB, and Rob Manfred’s handling of the scandal made Roger Goodell look like a Rhodes scholar by comparison.
So if you’re looking for something to read during the Great Stoppage, and you’re tired of the “as told to” malarkey that passes for information in baseball autobiographies, allow me to suggest seven books by five different authors that peel back the veneer on the baseball world and show some indications of the sports’ unseemly underbelly. None of these books will restore your faith in baseball after the sad saga of the Houston Asterisks and the Coronavirus Meltdown, but they’ll take you out to a ballgame more interesting for its flaws than for its feats.
The Long Season (1960) and Pennant Race (1962), by Jim Brosnan
A decade before another JB (Jim Bouton), relief pitcher Jim Brosnan came out with two books about his time in the big leagues, both understated classics of the “sports diary” format. His teammates called him “Professor” because of his passion for reading; his wife called him “Meat” because he was the antithesis of the dumb jock.
The Long Season chronicles Brosnan’s 1959 season, where a woeful St. Louis Cardinals team traded him to a slightly-better Cincinnati Reds team. That slightly better Reds team improved enough to win the National League pennant in 1961, hence the title of Brosnan’s second book. A universal theme through both books is the sheer boredom of big-league life, the hassles of waiting to take the mound and the anxiety of when your best stuff isn’t getting anyone out. Add to that the hassles of raising a family while being on the road and of the growing racial unrest in the country (as Brosnan was playing, the Civil Rights movement was gaining steam), and you have two great looks at an era way more complicated than contemporary accounts were willing to admit.
After Pennant Race, Brosnan decided to become a full-time writer and never played again. But his two books set the stage for more books to follow, like…
Ball Four (1970) and I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally” (1971), by Jim Bouton
By far the most famous book from a baseball player, Ball Four is Jim Bouton’s shot across the bow of baseball propriety. A former star pitcher for the New York Yankees, Bouton was starting out again with a new team (the Seattle Pilots), and a new pitch (the knuckleball). With editing by Leonard Schecter (whose The Jocks is worth seeking out), Bouton documented the 1969 season, where he found himself traded mid-season to the Houston Astros (no word if any sign-stealing occurred then).
His follow-up, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally, is entertainingly scattershot, documenting the reception that his previous book received not just from fellow players like Mickey Mantle but also from sportswriters, who often knew the same stories as Bouton but just didn’t report them. Both books show that Bouton was a true original, and in baseball that can leave you lonely at the end of the bench.
A False Spring (1975), by Pat Jordan
Bouton and Brosnan chronicled their time in the major leagues, where they had long if uneven careers. Pat Jordan never even got the proverbial “cup of coffee” with his major-league club, the Milwaukee Braves, in the early Sixties. A minor-league bust, Jordan documents his heartbreak in A False Spring. Jordan, signed to the Braves in the late Fifties and projected to be a starter in the majors, never got out of minor-league ball, much of it spent in Iowa (no “field of dreams,” as it turned out).
Jordan documents his slow realization of the fickleness of his talent with a baseball and his eventual slide further down the depth charts. Not all dreams of sports stardom come true. Indeed, the majority of them end like Jordan’s, promise never fulfilled. But he found a way to use the trauma of his stillborn career to pen a wonderful portrait of the artist as a young man, with a fastball that was great until it suddenly wasn’t.
I Never Had It Made (1972), by Jackie Robinson
Unlike the other authors mentioned here, Jackie Robinson didn’t need a memoir to secure his legacy; as the first black player to break the color line in major league baseball in 1947, his status in baseball history was secure. But it was earned at the cost of his ability to fight back against the racist treatment he often experienced, not just from fans but also from fellow players, including some of his fellow Brooklyn Dodger). A lifelong conservative, Robinson seemed out of touch with the late-Sixties “Black Power” movement that was in vogue while he was writing this book and slowly dying from diabetes. But Robinson gave full vent to his anger at the way that America had treated him in this posthumous memoir, including his court-martial for refusing to give up his seat to a white woman in 1944, while he was serving in the Army.
Though he broke the color barrier in baseball, he never could bring himself to stand for the National Anthem because he had seen the real, racist heart of the America that supposedly embraced him. With the tragic death of his son and namesake a year prior to his own death, Robinson was understandably in a bitter mood when he wrote this book, finally giving voice to the anger he kept in check under the orders of Branch Rickey, lest he endanger the chances of other black athletes to join the major leagues. It’s not easy being a trailblazer, and it’s likely that the contradictions between his public life and private anger helped cause Robinson’s early death. But his book is testament to the man behind the landmark in baseball and American history.
Juiced (2005), by Jose Canseco
So if you’re wondering why there are no books about the juicing scandal from the late Nineties and early Aughts, this is certainly one of the books that helped expose the level of “enhanced cheating” going on in the major leagues. But I’ve never actually read it, because it seemed like so much stuff that I already knew from following ESPN and sports-talk radio at the time. But obviously steroids and HGH were a huge factor in causing the disillusion that lost baseball its prominence in the hearts of America. So check it out for yourself, and let me know what I’m missing, though I already know about “sticking a needle in McGwire’s ass”.
Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball (2012), by R.A. Dickey
A gifted pitcher who had to adjust his pitching style after learning of an abnormal condition in his pitching arm, R.A. Dickey struggled to find his footing in the major leagues. He also had to deal with memories of sexual abuse from both male and female perpetrators, and suicidal thoughts. He found his way with his faith (as a born-again Christian) and with the knuckleball, also a path to redemption for Jim Bouton. But it’s not all serious with Dickey, who writes of his attempts to reach the majors and his flashy days as a hard-throwing pitcher with a knowing self-awareness and sense of humor.
Currently with the Atlanta Braves, Dickey also has a successful sideline as an author, with a children’s edition of his memoir and a contract for two other books as well. A survivor like Bouton and Jordan, R.A. Dickey has taken some hits but continues to pitch well in the majors, despite the fact that the Astros probably banged on the trashcan a few times whenever they had to face him.