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2018 Spring Baseball Titles: Gehrig and Ruth, the Baby Bombers, that Other New York Team, and More

Baseball Books

2018 Spring Baseball Titles: Gehrig and Ruth, the Baby Bombers, that Other New York Team, and More

Like many young boys of my generation, I grew up dreaming of playing professional ball. My friends and I would argue about what kind of careers we were hoping to have. One of us aspired to be a prodigious power hitter, another a standout pitcher. (I wanted to be an all-around solid star; of course, we would all wind up in the Hall of Fame.)

We would read stories about the early heroes of the game, which was in the style of the times and before Jim Bouton turned the sports lit industry on its head with his seminal and profane (for the time) BALL FOUR. These men usually overcame some adversity and, with dedication to their craft, became superstars. And they were great pals, to boot.

Tony Castro changes all of that in GEHRIG AND THE BABE: The Friendship and the Feud.

Castro --- who has written about other Yankee greats, including Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio --- notes that while the Iron Horse worshipped the Sultan of Swat as a fan, time took its toll on their relationship. At first, Babe Ruth took Lou Gehrig under his wing. His German background and appreciation for old country cooking made him a hit with Gehrig’s mother, whom Castro portrays as a dominant figure. But in time, Ruth --- falling out of the spotlight as Gehrig supplanted him as the Yankees leader --- made the mistake of insulting Ma Gehrig when she criticized the way Babe’s second wife was treating the daughter he had adopted with his first wife, who had died in a fire. Ruth basically told Gehrig that his mother should mind her own business, a critical misstep for a son whom Castro writes had an extremely close maternal relationship.

The two men reconciled when word came out that Gehrig was dying of ALS. Ruth came to the famous ceremony in which Gehrig made his “Luckiest Man” speech, and the two embraced. It was while Ruth himself was dying several years later that he expressed remorse over their falling out and that he had really loved Gehrig.

But that part of GEHRIG AND THE BABE does not take up as much of the narrative as one might expect, given the title. Most of the book contents itself in rehashing the key points of each player’s life, mostly concentrating on the negative aspects and how Ruth and Gehrig persevered to become the legends we still admire today. In that regard, Castro harkens back to the bios of old.

Will Bishop takes a more scholarly approach with PINSTRIPE NATION: The New York Yankees in American Culture. Again, Ruth is a focal point, as the author notes that the team really did not secure its place in history until he joined the team in 1920. The Big Bam was the perfect hero to come along in the Roaring Twenties, an era in which America reinvented itself following World War I.

Bishop follows the generations in an almost biblical genealogy: And Ruth begat Gehrig who begat DiMaggio who begat Mantle… Along the way, the team’s success became a symbol of what was good and bad with the country. The good was hard work, clean living (well, perhaps except for Ruth), and self-sacrifice for the good of the cause. The bad was segregation and prejudice; the Yankees were one of the last teams to have an African-American on the roster.

The Yankees winning “conservative” ways rubbed some baseball fans the wrong way. From the mid-’40s to the mid-’50s, their penchant for winning pennants and World Series irked the cross-town National League rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers, which had a much more socialist bend, thanks to Jackie Robinson and the other black players who were much more appealing to their multi-ethnic followers.

The Yankees developed a whole new generation of haters once George Steinbrenner bought the team and populated the lineup with free agents rather than home-grown players. They became, according to Boston Red Sox fans, the “evil empire,” reminiscent of Star Wars films.

Another new title taking a more measured approach is Susan Jacoby’s WHY BASEBALL MATTERS. The main argument here is that the national pastime is becoming less relevant. Of course, that’s what people have been saying after every technological innovation that threatened the sport’s popularity. Radio? Why should people come out to the game when they can hear it for free? Television? That will surely be end of the sport. Free agency? Who will you root for when players abandon teams after a couple of seasons? (Jerry Seinfeld once said that rooting for a team was like rooting for laundry.)

Jacoby’s main argument now is that there are too many distractions. Younger fans --- those under the age of 50 --- are too engaged with their cell phones, even while at the ballpark, to experience the game. Plus, the time it takes to play the darn contest? Way too long. Who has the patience for that? It used to be that one would go to the stadium to relax for a few hours. Now it seems that no one has the inclination to relax.

Jacoby’s and Bishop’s books might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Bryan Hoch’s THE BABY BOMBERS: The Inside Story of the Next Yankees Dynasty might be more to their liking. Hoch, the long-time baseball writer who now plies his trade on, kvells over the new batch of “home-grown” Yankees, including Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Didi Gregorius, Dellin Betances and others. Are these players comparable to the “Core Four” of the late 1990s --- Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada? Time will tell. It’s kind of amusing: Because of the relative youth and short terms of service of their new players, the Yankees point to the fact that they no longer have the highest payroll in the game, which many detractors love to use as an explanation as to why the team has done so well over the past couple of decades.

By the way, and in case you forgot, there’s another team in New York. You might not know it because of the comparable lack of books, but the Mets play there, too. One of the few titles about them is METS IN 10s: Best and Worst of an Amazin’ History, by Brian Wright. This one isn’t the type that has a compelling story to it, but it will spark feelings of nostalgia and, I imagine, a few arguments as the author makes his case for the top (and sometimes bottom) 10 in dozens of categories, including heroes and villains (both on the Mets and opposing teams); best and worst games; best and worst offenses; and dozens of other categories. While not on the same narrative level as the other books mentioned in this review, METS IN 10s is entertaining in a different, less demanding way.


--- Reviewed by Ron Kaplan (