Pete Rose: An American Dilemma

By Paul Hagen /

kennedy-peteroseIn Pete Rose: An American Dilemma, Kostya Kennedy authors a damning profile of baseball’s exiled Hit King. He crafts an exquisitely detailed portrait of a crude, self-absorbed, money-obsessed, low life who shamed the game and whose mandated exclusion from the Hall of Fame is more than justified.

At the same time, with the precision of a top-notch defense attorney, he builds an artful case for why Rose should join baseball’s immortals in Cooperstown. In this rendering, he is a winner whose presence lifted his teammates. A what-you-see-is-what-you-get product of his environment whose sin — betting on his own team to win — is no worse than steroid cheats and whose punishment — being placed on the permanently ineligible list — far exceeds that given to those who have violated gambling rules in other sports.

Make no mistake, this is an exhaustively-researched book-length examination of whether or not the player with more base hits than any player in history should be enshrined among the best who ever lived. It’s an argument that, even a quarter of a century after then-commissioner Bart Giamatti banished him for life, still raises hackles on both sides of the issue.

Both depictions are utterly convincing, and that’s where the dilemma that the title refers to comes in. Should Rose be in the Hall of Fame or not? Spoiler alert: Kennedy ultimately offers no opinion. He lays out the facts and lets the reader decide. (more…)

A Century of Wrigley Field

By Paul Hagen /

300x235_wrigley100bookWrigley Field is baseball’s most cherished ballpark. Just try to disagree.

There may be diverse opinions on which venue is the best — Boston’s Fenway Park has claimed for itself the distinction of most beloved. But the old yard at Clark and Addison on Chicago’s North Side, where baseball has been played since 1914, still stands apart.

Just in time for the centennial season comes “A Century of Wrigley Field: The Official History of the Friendly Confines.” Published by Major League Baseball and the Chicago Cubs, it’s a coffee-table volume that will delight the believers and persuade those who don’t get it yet.

Naturally, there are hundreds of spectacular photographs — all pulled together by the narrative written by veteran Chicago journalist Alan Solomon. It would be hard to imagine a more fitting author. When he was eight, Solomon got his first baseball glove. It was a Hank Sauer — the 1952 National League MVP Award winner with the Cubs — model, which he still has. He was also a vendor at Wrigley, Comiskey Park and Soldier Field to help pay his way through college — and covered the Cubs and White Sox for the Chicago Tribune from 1988 through 1994.

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Baseball’s Greatest

By Paul Hagen /

baseballsgreatestThere was a time, and not that long ago, when any decent saloon kept a copy of “The Baseball Encyclopedia” prominently displayed behind the bar. It came in handy to help settle arguments, or at least provide ammunition to one side or the other. These days, of course, a few taps on a smartphone can achieve the same result.

One thing that hasn’t changed is that baseball fans have strong opinions, and they are happy to share them — especially when a view isn’t shared by a person too thick to absorb the wisdom that’s being so freely dispensed.

The starting point for many debates starts with lists that authoritatively claim to identify the best of anything and place them in their proper order. Sports Illustrated was brave enough to take on this task with “Baseball’s Greatest,” a coffee table volume that attempts to not only rate the Top 10 players at each position but goes on to make a case for the best games, managers, ballparks, franchises, sluggers, runners, defenders and more.

If Helen of Troy had the face that launched a thousand ships, this is the book that will launch at least a thousand passionate discussions.

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Holy Toledo

By Paul Hagen /

holytoledoThere is plenty of anecdotal evidence that baseball fans tend to favor the broadcasters they hear regularly. The radio announcer, especially, becomes a season-long guest. Almost part of the family.

There’s little doubt that the late Bill King became that sort of fixture in the Bay Area while calling Athletics games for a quarter of a century. Ken Korach makes a convincing case in “Holy Toledo” that King’s ability and influence transcended geography even though he wasn’t well known outside the Oakland and San Francisco markets.

Korach was King’s partner in the booth for 10 years and makes no pretense of objectivity. Korach clearly admired his subject, and that’s all right, because he manages to celebrate the subject and humanize him all at the same time.

The title refers to King’s catchphrase when something out of the ordinary happened. But the most telling clue to this book is the subtitle. “Lessons from Bill King: Renaissance Man of the Mic.” This was one unique individual.

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You Gotta Have Heart

By Paul Hagen /

yougottahaveheartYounger fans may be excused for assuming that the history of Major League Baseball in Washington, D.C., dates back to 2005, when the Montreal Expos relocated and were rebranded as the Nationals. But there was baseball there long before Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg.

Those with a few more trips around the block probably recall that there was once a team called the Washington Senators. Frank Howard hit mammoth home runs at RFK Stadium, and Ted Williams managed there in the 1960s and early ’70s.

Students of the game know that the Senators actually won the World Series in 1924, featuring a roster headlined by fearsome right-hander Walter (Big Train) Johnson and managed by boy wonder Bucky Harris.

Frederic J. Frommer ably covers all this — and much, much more — in the definitive “You Gotta Have Heart: A History of Washington Baseball from 1859 to the 2012 National League East Champions.”

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A Way Out

By Paul Hagen /

awayoutIn 2010, Billy Wagner saved 37 games for the Braves. His ERA was 1.43. Wagner was with a playoff team, the team he rooted for growing up in southwest Virginia. And he walked away at the end of the season.

Wagner had announced it was going to be his last season. He stuck to the decision, perplexing many. He resisted overtures to change his mind. Wagner retired at the age of 38 even though he had another guaranteed year on his contract that would have paid him $6.5 million. Even though he was fifth on the all-time saves list with 422, just two behind John Franco for the most by a left-handed reliever.

No, Billy Wagner was never just another ballplayer. And not just because he had a rare tendency to say what was on his mind. Although that’s a quality that came in handy when composing “A Way Out: Faith, Hope & the Love of the Game” with the able assistance of Atlanta journalist Patty Rasmussen.

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Mickey and Willie

By Lindsay Berra /

Mickey_and_Willie-1Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays may well be the two best center fielders in history, but rarely are they viewed through the same prism. On Tuesday night, author Allen Barra appeared at the Museum of the City of New York to discuss his recent book, “Mickey and Willie: Mantle and Mays, the Parallel Lives of Baseball’s Golden Age,” in which he attempts to do just that.

“I believe that Mantle and Mays are the most written-about athletes in American sports history, but neither of their stories is complete without the other,” Barra said. “There are so many places where their stories intersected, and so many parallels. Perhaps the only reason they are not linked together in history is because Mays’ move to San Francisco obscured their connection for the next generation.”

Barra’s book shows that connection is undeniable.

Mantle and Mays were the same age, born five months apart in 1931. They were nearly the same height and weight and had virtually the same talent. When they arrived on the scene as rookies in 1951, New York — and all of baseball, for that matter — had never before seen power and speed in such thrilling combination.

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The Mouth That Roared

By Paul Hagen /

dallasgreenbookEven if “The Mouth That Roared: My Six Outspoken Decades in Baseball” did nothing more than provide a breezy read about the remarkable career of Dallas Green, that would have been enough.

There isn’t much the 78-year-old, now a senior advisor for the Phillies, hasn’t done in the game. He’s been a player and a coach. He’s been a scout, farm director, general manager and team president. He managed the Phillies, Mets and Yankees, bringing the first World Series championship to Philadelphia in 1980. He did it all while routinely telling the truth as he saw it, even if others didn’t always appreciate his blunt approach.

But what sets his book, written with Alan Maimon, apart are the few pages at the end when Green recounts how a national tragedy struck him in a profoundly personal way. When a gunman in Tucson, Ariz., set out to assassinate Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in January 2011, six others were killed. One of them was a 9-year-old girl named Christina-Taylor Green, Dallas’ granddaughter.

While admitting that he’ll never fully get over the loss, Green talks about this wrenching experience with the same unflinching honesty with which he discusses other chapters of his life. He doesn’t hide the fact that hunting is one of his favorite pastimes, but he believes there should be a limit on the sorts of weapons individuals can own. He openly admits that he’s angry that the shooter was ruled mentally incompetent, thus escaping the death penalty. He speaks movingly about trying to get past his understandable trauma to celebrate Christina-Taylor’s life.

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Inside the Baseball Hall of Fame

By Paul Hagen /

insidethehallBaseball, as everybody knows, is a game defined by numbers. So here are a couple statistics to consider. The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum has 50,000 square feet of public space. The shrine’s vast collection includes 40,000 artifacts and nearly a half million photographic images.

As a result, no more than 15 percent of the treasures can be displayed at any given time. If only there was a way for some of the most interesting objects to be available to fans all the time.

Now there is. “Inside the Baseball Hall of Fame” is a compilation of nearly 200 of the Hall of Fame’s more fascinating items, all artfully photographed and reproduced. And that’s impressive all by itself.

What makes the compilation even more compelling, though, are the copy blocks that accompany each picture, adding context to the visual feast, explaining the backgrounds and illuminating the back stories.

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Baseball’s Last Great Scout

By Paul Hagen /

lastgreatscoutEarlier this summer, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum opened a two-year exhibit to celebrate the contributions of scouts to the national pastime. So the publication of “Baseball’s Last Great Scout” is perfectly timed.

Hugh Alexander is, without question, one of the great characters of the game. A promising 20-year-old prospect for the Indians, he lost his left hand in an offseason Oklahoma oil field accident. By the time the next season rolled around, Alexander had already embarked on his new career, driving thousands of miles on back roads to find players for the Cleveland organization.

Whether Alexander was actually the last great scout is sort of beside the point. The reality is that he exemplified the pre-Draft era where talent hunters relied on their wits and their guile to convince prospects to sign with them, even if another club was offering more money.

It required developing a wide network of contacts who would supply tips. Sometimes it meant also signing a brother, even though Uncle Hughie knew he’d never make it. Sometimes it involved exploiting a loophole in baseball’s rules. Almost always it involved getting to know the family, especially the mother. By all accounts, Alexander was as good as it got employing those arcane skills.

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