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2019 Summer Baseball Titles: Ernie Banks, Ron Swoboda, David Cone, the Modern Yankees Dynasty, and Baseball's Unwritten Rules

Baseball Books

2019 Summer Baseball Titles: Ernie Banks, Ron Swoboda, David Cone, the Modern Yankees Dynasty, and Baseball's Unwritten Rules

When Ken Griffey Jr. broke into the Majors in 1989, I remember he was called out for having the audacity to wear his cap backwards during pregame activities. “Disrespectful,” tut-tutted the veterans. But Griffey was just having fun, in the same way that today’s players are exuberant in their celebrations.

If you had asked then what acceptable behavior on the ballfield would be --- the game’s “Unwritten Code” you hear so much about --- no doubt you would get a different answer than you would today. That is the heart of Danny Knobler’s UNWRITTEN: Bat Flips, the Fun Police, and Baseball's New Future.

It’s a generational thing, writes Knobler, who covers the sport for Bleacher Report. It’s also an international/cultural thing. Players from the Dominican Republic, Cuba and other countries have grown up learning to play with an unabashed joy that is often missing among young players in the U.S., who join elite travel teams and engage personal coaches at an early age if a hint of talent is discerned. Some old-timers are not too pleased with such displays. This is especially true coming from the ex-players who populate the broadcast booths, often carping, “That’s not the way we did things in my day.”

But those days, for better or worse, are over. “The unwritten rules change more gradually,” Knobler says. “They change as society changes. They change as the players change. They become the reason some guys get called ‘old school’ and some don’t.”

“The prevalence of social media has changed the game in other ways,” the author continues. “Players are more accessible to fans than ever, except that accessibility over the Internet has led many of them to guard their actual private time and lives even more closely.” (Can you imagine Babe Ruth playing in this modern technological age?)

You want to talk about “old school”? Years ago on my blog --- Ron Kaplan’s Baseball Bookshelf --- I noted that there have been dozens of books about Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Jackie Robinson. But the stories of others, including a number of members of the Hall of Fame, were underrepresented or missing entirely. Ernie Banks, who played his entire 19-year career with the hapless Chicago Cubs, falls into this category. Perhaps to compensate, this year saw two biographies, including Ron Rapoport’s LET’S PLAY TWO: The Legend of Mr. Cub, the Life of Ernie Banks (Doug Wilson, who also gave us bios on Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, Brooks Robinson and Carlton Fisk, published LET’S PLAY TWO: The Life and Times of Ernie Banks).

Although he was a two-time MVP and an eventual HOF inductee, Banks never had the same level of adulation as a Mantle or a Robinson. Despite playing on some mighty bad squads, the perpetually upbeat “Mr. Cub” was a fan favorite, retiring with 512 home runs, which really meant something in the pre-performance-enhancing drug era.

But as is often the case, the life of a celebrity is never as rosy at it might seem on the outside. Banks was married four times and suffered from self-doubt, especially towards the end of his career, a situation exacerbated by his acerbic manager, Leo “The Lip” Durocher, who hated the fact that he had to share the limelight with the popular, aging athlete.

If there is one strike against LET’S PLAY TWO, it’s that the 400-plus-page offering could have been shortened without losing much impact by eliminating chapters that had a good deal of exposition but little to do with Banks’ actual life story. Nevertheless, Rapoport’s contribution to the Banks canon is well worth the time (he devotes an entire chapter to the genesis of that signature phrase “Let’s play two!”).

During Banks’ tenure, the Cubs came close to winning the pennant only once, in 1969. Of course, any baseball fan worth his or her salt knows that was the year of the Miracle Mets. So it’s not surprising to find a number of books marking that anniversary. In a previous roundup, we discussed the bittersweet story of outfielder Art Shamsky and some of his buddies taking a cross-country trip to visit that team’s marquee star, Tom Seaver, who would not be able to join in the celebrations due to ill health. One of those players was Ron Swoboda, whose claim to fame was making a game-saving catch in right field during the World Series against the Baltimore Orioles. That’s the impetus behind HERE’S THE CATCH: A Memoir of the Miracle Mets and More.

Although never a star --- he hit just .242 with 73 home runs in nine big-league campaigns --- Swoboda was marketed as a brawny slugger, a Li'l Abner type. His nickname “Rocky” might have been a less-than-generous nod to a perception that he was not very bright, which he self-deprecatingly acknowledges. Yet there’s a thoughtfulness and intelligence in his book that belies that notion, along with his appreciation for the opportunity he was given and the cheerful notoriety he has enjoyed as a member of the ’69 Mets.

While the Mets were hopeful that they could build on their world championship for the foreseeable future, their cross-town rivals were suffering their worst seasons. This is the opening for Bill Pennington’s CHUMPS TO CHAMPS: How the Worst Teams in Yankees History Led to the '90s Dynasty.

Gone were heroes like Mantle, Maris and Ford, replaced by disappointments such as Joe Pepitone and Horace Clarke. Gone, too, was the team’s ownership. George Steinbrenner purchased the legendary franchise in 1973 and would not stand for mediocrity, hiring and firing executives and field managers seemingly on a whim in an effort to restore the Bronx Bombers to their former glory.

Pennington --- who wrote perhaps the best bio on one of those beleaguered skippers in BILLY MARTIN: Baseball’s Flawed Genius --- does a similarly great job in showing how the team carefully scouted, trained and promoted their way to their later success, especially when it came to the fabled “Core Four,” a group of long-lasting, home-grown talent that featured shortstop Derek Jeter, catcher Jorge Posada, and pitchers Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera.

CHUMPS TO CHAMPS could be considered another in the mold of those MONEYBALL books, examining the architecture of putting together a successful team. So there’s a good deal of behind-the-scenes machinations, with a number of starts and stops along the path to new-found glory that the Yankees enjoyed over the past couple of decades.

As a Yankee from 1995 to 2000, David Cone was able to experience some of that glory. A former Cy Young Award winner (albeit with the Toronto Blue Jays in the strike-shortened 1994 season), he has collaborated with veteran journalist Jack Curry on FULL COUNT: The Education of a Pitcher.

Cone is surprisingly open about his experiences, both the good and the bad. His dad, Ed, instilled in him a strong work ethic. But that, even with Major League talent, is no guarantee of success. And sure enough, Cone had his dark moments, in terms of both a lack of maturity as a young hurler and physical problems, including a potentially fatal blood clot in his shoulder. While many athletes-cum-authors are not shy about blowing their own horns, Cone is more circumspect, blending self-deprecation with an acceptable dose of self-worth.

After retiring at the age of 38 (with the Boston Red Sox), Cone joined the Yankees broadcast booth, so he’s a student of the game. As such, this book is a blend of memoir and primer, the latter of which can get a tad much at times, a bit too “inside baseball,” joining the ranks of many other titles that analyze the game to a metaphorical molecular level. But it’s the aforementioned combination that sets FULL COUNT apart from the herd.


--- Reviewed by Ron Kaplan (