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2021 Spring Baseball Titles: Free Agency, the Players' Strike, the Wild-Card Era, Cool Papa Bell and an Unlikely Friendship

Baseball Books

2021 Spring Baseball Titles: Free Agency, the Players' Strike, the Wild-Card Era, Cool Papa Bell and an Unlikely Friendship

Noted New York Mets fan Jerry Seinfeld has a routine that describes how some people feel about the modern game of baseball:

“Loyalty to any one sports team is pretty hard to justify, because the players are always changing, the team can move to another city. You're actually rooting for the clothes, when you get right down to it…. You are standing and cheering and yelling for your clothes to beat the clothes from another city. Fans will be so in love with a player, but if he goes to another team, they boo him. This is the same human being in a different shirt; they hate him now.”

When I was a beardless youth, history was something that happened a long time before I was born. How strange (and depressing) to realize that more time has passed since then than between Babe Ruth’s final season and my first as a fan (50-plus versus 30, for those of you keeping score at home). Three new titles examine baseball since the 1970s, when I really started paying attention

GATHERING CROWDS: Catching Baseball Fever in the New Era of Free Agency by Paul Hensler takes an overview from the burgeoning days of player self-determination (in that they had more of a say in where they wanted to play) through the late 1980s.

When I was a kid, there was no such thing as free agency. Rather, there was the “reserve clause,” which bound a player to the organization that signed him in perpetuity, until he retired or the team traded, sold or released him.

GATHERING CROWDS is a well-crafted, thoughtful look, mostly at the business aspects. Many fans forget the difficulties of the day as ownership tried to push back against player mobility and rising wages. (What passed for big money in those innocent years wouldn’t get you a third-string infielder these days). Other infrastructure issues included outdated stadiums in need of renovation in order to attract the fans and, of course, the scourge of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) that cast a pall on some of the most exciting records and brought into question the pure talents of those players who imbibed. 

Hensler also looks at social issues, such as the role of minorities on and off the field. It took almost 20 years from Jackie Robinson becoming the first African-American to break the color line to Frank Robinson (no relation) becoming the first Black manager. Similarly, female journalists had difficulty gaining acceptance, not only from the players, managers and owners, but from their male media colleagues as well.

Bryan Soderholm-Difatte contributes two stand-alone volumes to the category of “recent” history: THE RESHAPING OF AMERICA’S GAME: Major League Baseball After the Players’ Strike and AMERICA’S GAME IN THE WILD-CARD ERA: From Strike to Pandemic.

Beginning with the former, Soderholm-Difatte does a deep dive into the labor difficulties that led to baseball’s longest work stoppage and marked the only time since its inception in 1903 that there was no World Series (save for the 1904 campaign in which the two pennant-winning teams could not agree on the conditions for a postseason matchup).

Yes, there had been strikes before, including 1981, the only split season in MLB’s existence. But, as he points out, three wars, the Spanish Flu of 1918 and the attacks on 9/11 were not able to cancel the annual spectacle, and the same can be said for the COVID-19 pandemic. No doubt this will be the first in a line of books that touch on the coronavirus and its potentially seminal effect on baseball moving forward.

Like Hensler, Soderholm-Difatte also covers the major stories of the era, including the influence of minorities and players from Asian and Latin American countries, drug usage, and personnel and personal conflicts.

Neither of these books make for what one might consider entertaining reading, but they represent the first of the modern histories of the game.

In another historic move, Major League Baseball recently decided to recognize the Negro Leagues as a part of the “organized game.”

Heretofore, that particular brand was considered out of bounds, so to speak. In addition to the racial aspects of exclusion, the media of the day more often than not failed to cover the Negro Leagues. It’s kind of a “tree falling in the woods” conundrum: If there are no box scores or reliable statistics, did it really happen?

There are many books about the legends of the Negro Leagues that include numbers, but most of them rely on anecdotes and narratives handed down over the years. The latest is THE BONA FIDE LEGEND OF COOL PAPA BELL: Speed, Grace and the Negro Leagues, the final gift from Lonnie Wheeler, who passed away in July 2020.

It was said that Cool Papa could turn off the light in his hotel room and jump into bed before the room got dark (for which Wheeler offers a plausible explanation). But even he agreed about the slipshod manner in which the games were covered: “[T]here were no statisticians, only keepers of the scorebook, and those could be the second-string catcher, a pitcher between starts, the manager’s nephew, or sometimes...nobody.”

And even if a reporter was assigned to cover the game, you couldn’t always rely on him for accurate information for a variety of reasons, including just not showing up.

Wheeler --- whose previous work includes INTANGIBALL: The Subtle Things That Win Baseball Games and PITCH BY PITCH: My View of One Unforgettable Game, one of three books he did with the late Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson --- exhibited his usual high standards for research, digging deeply into Bell’s family, as well as the men with whom he played and the sometimes haphazard way in which the Negro Leagues were forced to do business.

But for every Cool Papa, Satchel Paige or Josh Gibson, there were scores of other players who never received the fame of relatively big paychecks. That’s where COMEBACK SEASON: My Unlikely Story of Friendship with the Greatest Living Negro League Baseball Players by Cam Perron and Nick Chiles comes into play.

Perron --- winner of the Baseball Reliquary’s Hilda Award for distinguished service to the sport --- was a most precocious young man. As a preteen he developed an interest in the alumni of the Negro Leagues. With the help of his parents, that interest turned into a passion as he started collecting autographed pictures from these men, who must have been surprised to receive requests of this nature from a young white boy.

Gradually, Perron began to befriend these players, and at the age of 15 he helped organize the Negro League Player Reunion in Birmingham, Alabama, in 2010. His story is a sweet reminder of the bond between teammates and opponents that time can’t blunt.


--- Reviewed by Ron Kaplan (