A great, great game
From watching to reading about the game, this is truly a great time to be a baseball fan.
Resolved: That there's never been a better time than 2004 to be a baseball fan.
Crazy, right? Weren't the 1950s the Golden Age? Weren't the 1960s unsullied by labor squabbles? Weren't the 1970s a wonderful blend of power and speed? Weren't the 1980s full of competitive balance? Weren't the 1990s ... OK, so it's hard to think of something nice to say about the 1990s. But you get my point. What sets today's baseball apart from what came before?
I say this is the Golden Age, or the Platinum Age or whatever you want to call it. If I want to watch a game this evening -- any major league game -- there's an excellent chance that I can, as long as I've got a television and a reasonably priced cable-TV package (or satellite dish). If I missed anything last night, I can almost certainly catch up, as long as I've got high-speed Internet access. If I want to see a major league game in person, most nights there are 15 ballparks full of world-class players (in the so-called "Golden Age" there were only eight). If I just want to see professional baseball in one of its many different forms, there's a great chance that I live within an hour's drive of major league, minor league, or independent league baseball (and more than a few of you have all three).
That's the big stuff (or most of it). And here's a little thing for most fans, but a big thing for a lot of people that I know ... If you like to read baseball books, there's never been a better time to be alive. A few years ago, I presented my Essential Baseball Library (and yes, I know it's time for an update). At the time, a few of the books I listed were out of print. Today, nearly all of those are back in print. In fact, as near as I can tell the only great baseball book that's currently out of print is Leo Durocher's autobiography (co-written by the great Ed Linn), Nice Guys Finish Last. And I have little doubt that somebody's planning to come out with a new edition of that one, too.
This isn't a comprehensive list, but I do want to mention three great baseball books that have just been published in new editions.
Of course, a few weeks ago in this space I interviewed Charles Einstein, whose classic book Willie's Time has just been published in a new edition by Southern Illinois University Press. In conjunction with the interview, we also ran an excerpt from the book, which belongs in every serious baseball library.
Mike Sowell's The Pitch That Killed just blew me away when I first read it, 15 years ago. Just reading the title, you might think the book is concerned solely with the death in 1920 of Indians shortstop Ray Chapman, who of course was struck in the head by a Carl Mays fastball and died shortly afterward. Sowell covers that tragedy in great detail, but the real story here is the American League's pennant race, which included not only Chapman's Indians but also Babe Ruth's Yankees and Shoeless Joe Jackson's White Sox. I won't tell you who wound up in first place, but I will tell you the Black Sox scandal broke during the last week of the pennant race, and Sowell covers that story in detail.
It's just an outstanding book that didn't get enough attention when it was first published. Now it's got a second chance, published in a new edition by Ivan R. Dee, and I encourage you to take advantage.
Another "time machine book" is Arnold Hano's A Day in the Bleachers, which is hands-down the best book ever written from the perspective of the baseball fan. Which isn't to say Hano wasn't a professional writer. Over the years, he wrote a great number of fine articles for Sport. But the premise of A Day in the Bleachers was simple: what could an intelligent and insightful baseball fan see from the center-field bleachers at New York's Polo Grounds during the first game of the 1954 World Series? This book is published in a new edition as well by Da Capo Press.
The new cover features a four-photo depiction of Willie Mays' famous catch of Vic Wertz's long drive to center field, and Hano vividly describes the event. But to suggest that Hano's book is about that singular moment in baseball history would be a serious injustice. A Day in the Bleachers is about the New York Giants, the Polo Grounds, baseball in the early 1950s, and the malady known as "baseball fan." Hano's breezy, accessible style makes it one of those rare baseball books, along with Ball Four and a very few others, that invite a re-reading every two or three springs.
I also want to mention, if only in passing, a few new baseball books written by friends of mine ... Allen Barra's Brushbacks and Knockdowns: The Greatest Baseball Debates of Two Centuries is not merely a new edition of his previous book, Clearing the Bases. All I'll tell you is that if you enjoy my columns when I do things like rank the all-time greatest third basemen, then you'll love Allen's book ... Bill Nowlin's Mr. Red Sox: The Johnny Pesky Story is about, yes, Johnny Pesky. Aside from a few short stretches, Pesky has been working for the Red Sox in one capacity or another since 1942, which means that his history nicely doubles as a shorthand history of the franchise itself ... John Sickels is a regular ESPN.com contributor so you probably already know about Bob Feller: Ace of the Greatest Generation. If not, I'll tell you that Sickels has written the first serious biography of Feller, and that John's research, supplemented by a few hours spent with his subject, has resulted in a baseball biography not quite like any other that I've read.
Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.