Thursday, September 27th, 2007
10:45 pm - Non-Fiction  
Managed to get in a ride tonight before the skies opened up. It helps that my back seems to be coming around. Not much discomfort at all while I was on the bike, and only a little after I stiffened up. All hail ibuprofen!

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I haven't updated my reading list for awhile. I've been reading quite a bit. Just haven't been writing about it. Let's start with the non-fiction.

Just Play Ball — Joe Garagiola

Marcie: Babe Ruth had a cap. Willie Mays had a cap. Ted Williams had a cap. Maury Wills had a cap. Willie McCovey had a cap. Mickey Mantle had cap.
Peppermint Patty: Marcie will you shut up!
Marcie: Even Joe Garagiola had a cap.


When I was in grad school, we once held a department golf tournament and called it the Lite Beer West Kingston Klassic, in honor of a recently graduated friend's inexplicable love for crappy beer. First prize was a six-pack of Lite beer. Second prize was two six-packs. In a similar vein, I won this book in a contest over at the Griddle. The winner could choose between this book or tickets to a Dodger game at Dodger Stadium. Second place would get the other prize. I came in third, yet the book was still available. It's even autographed. Poor Joe.

Garagiola generally deprecates his own skills, but the truth is that he wasn't all that bad a ballplayer. His OPS was about average for catchers in his era. He didn't hit for much power, but he had excellent plate discipline. His career on base percentage is a hundred points higher than his career batting average. That's terrific. He didn't strike out much, either. His career was short, just nine seasons. I'm kind of surprised it wasn't longer. He was only 28 during his final season, when he hit .280/.397/.415 as a backup catcher for the Cubs and the eventual world champion Giants.

He likens the book to a conversation at the ball park, just a fan in the stands telling stories to anyone who'll listen, and he's right. It's a collection of anecdotes, occasionally interspersed with some commentary about the state of the game, roughly grouped together by subject into chapters. Some of the stories are his own, and some are retellings of stories he's heard over the years. They're a mixed bag. A few are hilarious (to me anyway), such as the one about a call former umpire Bill Haller once made on a close play at second base. The second baseman argued, then asked Haller, "Would he have been out if I'd tagged him?" To which Haller replied "I really think you would've had a better chance."

Some brought back memories. At one point Garagiola mentions that ballplayers used to be able to sort of roll up their fielding gloves and stick them in the back pockets of their uniforms, and it brought back a memory of me doing the exact same thing when I got my first little league uniform. Those back pockets were pretty roomy. Of course, all that weight made your pants droop. Quite the fashion look.

One problem the book had for me is that if you've listened to Garagiola broadcast as many games as I have, a lot of the stories sound vaguely familiar. Maybe you don't recognize the details, but you can almost hear him telling the story to Kubek or Scully. Plus, a lot of the stories from his playing days feature players I'd never heard of, partly because his career ended when before I turned two years old, and also because he played on some really bad teams along side a lot of never-weres. It sort of like listening to stories about somebody else's friends and relatives whom you've never met. It's often hard to keep your interest piqued.

That said, the book is worthwhile for the stories Garagiola tells about the two men who appear to have been his biggest baseball heroes. The first is Branch Rickey, or Mr. Rickey, as Joe (and a lot of other people who knew him) always calls him. He devotes a good number of pages to things that Rickey said, all of which Garagiola wrote down for later use. The quotes give the impression that Mr. Rickey was a bit like Kasper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon, calmly rational but a tad long-winded. Rickey's reputation as a forward thinker is well known. He integrated baseball, and created the farm system for developing players. Mr. Rickey was also almost fifty years ahead of his time on evaluating hitters, as this quote from 1954 indicates:

"If the baseball world is to accept this new system of analyzing the game—and eventually it will—it must first give up preconceived ideas. Two measureable factors—on-base percentage and power— gauge the overall offensive worth of an individual."

That, in a very wordy nutshell, is the definition of OPS. Joe also mentions Rickey's definition of an "anesthetic player," a player who gives you some good games, but not enough to help you win a pennant. "He's killing you, but you don't feel it." I have half a mind to send a copy of the chapter to Ned Colletti.

The other hero Garagiola spends some time on is the kid who grew up directly across the street from him, Yogi Berra. There's a remarkable photograph in the book. It's a picture of Joe's father at a construction job site, having lunch with Yogi's dad. I mean what are the odds that the kids of two random guys with their lunch pails sitting next to a pile of bricks would both end up in the Hall of Fame. It's a great story, as are most of his other reminiscences about the kid they used to call "Lawdy."

Overall I enjoyed it. It may drag in spots, but there's enough good stuff here to make up for it. I can think of a lot of worse ways to spend time than listening to Joe Garagiola talk about baseball. And if nothing else, I learned an important life lesson, not that I'm ever likely to need it—never shake hands with Moises Alou.

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Fit or Fat — Covert Bailey

Bailey used to be a staple of PBS fund drives, at least until he started hawking exercise equipment in infomercials. His advice on fitness always seemed reasonable to me, so when I saw this on a remainders table years ago for $2.99, I picked it up. Finally got around to reading it. It's short, and most of it is anecdotes to drive home points. It turns out all you really need to read is the four-page summary of the program in the appendix. Worth a look.