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April 15, 2024

The Long Ball, and The Big Bam: Book Reviews

By Richard Voza

The Long Ball by Tom Adelman and The Big Bam, by Leigh Montville.

I love baseball.
I love watching baseball.
I love listening to baseball on the radio.
I love being at a game.
I love playing catch with one of my kids or even myself, just throwing it up high and catching it or bouncing a ball against a wall, like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape.

I also love reading and learning about baseball.

I've only read about four books on baseball, but the best by far is The Long Ball, by Tom Adelman.

Even though the Red Sox, not my Yankees, made it to the World Series that year, it was still a great season, and Adelman did a heck of a lot of research to present the many elements that came together both on and off the field. That season culminated in a classic World Series battle between the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Red Sox. As a Yankee fan who descended from generations of Yankee fans, I'm not proud to admit that I was actually pulling for the Red Sox. I'll explain why later.

Adelman begins well before the '75 season and covers trades and draft picks by the Reds and Red Sox that were the building blocks of the series that year, but the book covers the whole league and not just those teams. Although I know a lot about baseball ( though not as much as my brother Michael), this book was a great education about the front office doings and backroom deals that spawned free agency and other events that made 1975 such a landmark year for baseball. Being just a kid at the time, I was never fully aware of what free agency was. I only cared that Catfish Hunter, the best pitcher in baseball at that time, left the world champion Oakland A's to join my rebuilding Yankees. There was money, pride, and spite from both players and owners, and a bidding war for one of the very few pitchers to have ever thrown a perfect game. Those who know a little bit about baseball have probably heard the name of Curt Flood, who is often credited with starting free agency in baseball. However, Adelman explains why that's a popular misconception, and I was happy to learn the truth. To most people, it's just trivia. To fans who really want to know baseball, it's a big deal.

Pete Rose was a huge factor in that season and in baseball history. This won't make much sense unless you read the book, but a gift for one of Rose's children prompted Cincinnati Reds manager Sparky Anderson to move Rose from the outfield to third base. That simple move then opened up a roster spot for longtime minor leaguer George Foster. Foster was a bitter, unappreciated, and very close to quitting baseball until Anderson's move allowed Foster to reveal his talent on a major-league level, leading him to a stellar season, World Series, and eventually the baseball hall of fame alongside Rose and a few others from those Reds teams of the '70's.

Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk hit a homerun in that '75 World Series that is still regarded as one of the top ten homeruns ever. If you've ever watched any baseball, you've probably seen Fisk leaping up the first base line, waving his arms to the right, trying to will the ball to stay fair, as it did, over the Green Monster. Being a Yankee fan, I never cared much for Fisk, but it was great to learn the freak situation that allowed the left field television camera to catch his dramatic body language as his homer forced a seventh game against the Reds. I had nothing but fear and respect for Jim Rice when he came to bat against my Yankees. However, it was sad to learn what kept Rice's bat out of the lineup for most of the '75 season.

When I was a kid, wiffleball or any type of baseball, was played all summer. We had our own wiffleball league, and I was always the homerun champ. Although it was just a wiffleball, nobody hit it better than I did. I was a decent pitcher too. All this was from about 1972 to 1979 as I went from 5th to 11th grade. During those years I listened to almost every Yankee game on 770 WABC radio in New York. The Yankee radio team back then was the vocally perfect Frank Messer, the veteran player Bill White, and the emotional character of Phil Rizzuto. If there is anything that could add to the nostalgia of that time, it's this book.

I'm a Yankee fan, so why was I rooting for the Red Sox in the World Series against the Reds? In 1988, as the gambling inquiry was progressing against Rose, I passed him in an Atlanta hotel lobby and said, "Hey, Pete, I hope you rot in jail." I have no respect for Pete Rose, despite his baseball brilliance, mainly because he ended the career of Oakland A's catcher Ray Fosse in home plate collision during a meaningless All-Star game in 1970. The game counted only for pride, but nobody exemplified pride more than Rose. Adelman sheds some light on that situation with a story that surprised me and almost allowed me to forgive Rose. Not quite, but almost. I had no clue that Rose and Fosse were friends and even had dinner together the night before that all-star game. However, since then, Rose has expressed some bitterness towards the sympathy that Fosse has received because of the injury. Yankee fans hate the Red Sox, no question, but it's hard to overlook how Rose's selfishness ended another player's career.

The Long Ball is baseball education. I thought I knew baseball. If I was a B student before, then The Long Ball has brought me up to an A -.

Ooohh! A doubleheader! A review of a second book about baseball!

Did I mention that I love baseball and the Yankees? Therefore, it was a no brainer that I'd read The Big Bam, a richly detailed biography about George Herman "Babe" Ruth, by Leigh Montville. It's filled with things I both appreciated and didn't want to read. I've always had a very high regard for Ruth because he single-handedly saved baseball when it was almost forgotten. He not only saved baseball but turned a game for boys into a respectable (until recently) industry. He grew so famous that he became a question on a test to check if someone really was an American or trying to enter the country illegally.

I knew that before Ruth started pounding the ball over the fence, people didn't really care about homeruns. Fans actually were disappointed by roundtrippers because the homerun was considered a cheap run and not very strategic. Most fans then, but very few now, were more excited to see a run manufactured with a single, a stolen base, a ground ball to second, and a flyout to left center. What I didn't know was that Ruth was a creep. He grew from an abandoned, penniless boy in an orphanage to a wealthy man who abandoned his wife and child. A normal man would have been grateful and humble, but a normal man wouldn't have been Babe Ruth.

There's no telling how many times, if any, a biographer takes liberties with the truth, especially when there's no way to verify what was written. In this book, however, Montville often makes a specific effort to point out that the tale he's telling might be true, but it might not be true. Either way, he's going to tell the most commonly known legend and leave it to each reader to either stand with the legend or let it go.

This approach is most evident from start to finish. The book opens with Ruth's father bringing little George on a bus ride to a home for "incorrigible," orphaned, and other unfortunate children. Montville is sure to let the reader know that his description might not be the truth, but it is the best version that he can find through his many interviews. Just like the story about Ruth telling a sick boy how he'd hit a homerun for the lad or the called shot in the World Series against the Cubs, there just aren't any facts, only a lot of speculation and foggy memories passed on and on.

Montville doesn't shy away or play anything safely. Ruth was a generous tipper and spread the wealth whenever it felt right. However, he also showed his fangs, as when he challenged an umpire to a fight on the field or stood on the dugout, screaming at fans who were treating him with less respect than he believed he deserved. Although he wasn't African-American, he was regularly called names because of his large lips, olive skin, and flat nose.

Yankee Stadium was built because of him, so I didn't realize that it literally was The House that Ruth Built. Yankee fans may have wondered why the grandstands didn't make a complete circuit of the stadium. Instead, there's a single level of bleachers running from right to left field. It's explained in the book, and it's because of Ruth. The New York Daily News was created because of Ruth, so I guess it should be called The Paper that Ruth Wrote.

If you're a baseball fan, you should read The Big Bam. If you're a Yankee fan, you must read it. You owe it to the legacy of The Team that Ruth Built.

Article © Richard Voza. All rights reserved.
Published on 2009-07-27
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