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2022 Summer Baseball Titles: Paul O’Neill, Jackie Robinson, Rebels and Keeping Score

Baseball Books

2022 Summer Baseball Titles: Paul O’Neill, Jackie Robinson, Rebels and Keeping Score

Variety of books is the spice of baseball life.

As usual, the new season offers a variety of literary baseball topics, from biographies to histories to statistical analysis and beyond. Here is a sampling of this year’s “crop.”

It’s hard to believe that we’re approaching 30 years since Paul O’Neill and the “Core Four” --- Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera --- led the Yankees to the postseason with astonishing regularity. O’Neill was an outstanding outfielder for the Cincinnati Reds (his hometown team) and the New York Yankees during their dynasty years of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

O’Neill is thoughtful and opinionated. Like many of his contemporaries, he feels he has a lot to offer in the area of “life wisdom” and how the game ought to be played, which he shares in SWING AND A HIT: Nine Innings of What Baseball Taught Me. The book is cowritten by Jack Curry, an award-winning sportswriter and analyst on the Yankees’ pregame and postgame shows on the YES Network. Known for his intensity and fiery temper, O’Neill recalls what he learned over his own career and how that translates (or doesn’t) into the game we see today. Almost every generation of players who pick up the pen leans towards the “things were better in my day” school of writing.

Although a five-time All-Star during his 17-year career in which he averaged 22 home runs a year and put together a string of four years with 100 or more runs batted in, O’Neill never quite reached superstar level. He’s one of those guys who makes you ask, “Yeah, he was good, but do I really want to read his memoir?” Yankee devotees might think so, but outside of that market, well, that remains to be seen.

I wonder if O’Neill --- or anyone playing since the dawn of free agency in the mid-1970s created a whole new dynamic --- thinks about those who came before to pave the way for the benefits they take for granted. Robert Elias and Peter Dreier remind us of those individuals in MAJOR LEAGUE REBELS: Baseball Battles Over Workers' Rights and American Empire. Fans may not be familiar with many of the people who appear here, but in their own way they had a lot to do with the evolution of the sport beyond the play on the field. This is strictly an academic exercise, meant for serious students of the game, not just those interested in uplifting stories or legends who posted amazing statistics.

MAJOR LEAGUE REBELS is not to be confused with Elias and Dreier’s other 2022 release, BASEBALL REBELS: The Players, People, and Social Movements That Shook Up the Game and Changed America. According to Dreier, “Both books profile baseball's reformers, radicals, iconoclasts, mavericks, and dissenters from the 1800s through today. BASEBALL REBELS focuses on the players, managers, sportswriters, and even some owners who challenged racism, sexism, and homophobia in baseball and in society, [while] MAJOR LEAGUE REBELS is about the people who challenged corporate power in baseball and society and who opposed efforts to link baseball to American militarism and imperialism.

“These books are meant to remind all of us (including today's players) that the struggle for social justice is part of baseball's history.”

As it turns out, you can never remind fans --- or players --- enough about the sacrifices of those who came before them. Vince Coleman was an African-American outfielder for several teams, including the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Mets. Known for his talent for stealing bases (752 in 13 seasons that were often marred by injuries), Coleman infamously responded to a question during the 1985 World Series about Jackie Robinson’s legacy: “Why are you asking me about Jackie Robinson?” he snapped. “I don’t know nothin’ about him.” Shockingly ignorant.

Fortunately, Major League Baseball has made it an ongoing mission to celebrate Robinson. This year marked the 75th anniversary of his historic debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers, which broke the gentlemen’s agreement among owners to keep Black players out of organized baseball. Kostya Kennedy, whose previous subjects of award-winning biographies include Joe DiMaggio and Pete Rose, keeps up his stellar work in TRUE: The Four Seasons of Jackie Robinson.

The “seasons” examined are spring 1946, as Robinson lay the foundation for his rookie campaign the following year; summer 1949, when he was no longer hamstrung by his promise to general manager Branch Rickey not to fight back against the torrent of injustices and abuse heaped upon him by fans, umpires, opponents and even teammates; fall 1956, as he was winding down his career and making the decision to retire rather than accept a trade to the hated rival New York Giants; and winter 1972, when he died at the too-young age of 53. Kennedy presents each phase with heartbreaking yet proud storytelling.

IN SCORING POSITION: 40 Years of a Baseball Love Affair by longtime Boston Globe columnist and ESPN personality Bob Ryan is interesting on a couple of fronts. Cowritten by Bill Chuck, it’s literally about keeping score, which Ryan did for hundreds of games --- mostly involving the Boston Red Sox --- in his collection of score books. In a lesser sense, Ryan has “kept score,” as in the events, large and small, for decades. Chuck provides anecdotes and “commentary” for the dozens of games from the 1970s through last year. Readers might wish for more of Ryan’s award-winning work and less of the background, but it’s still a slice of history.

--- Reviewed by Ron Kaplan (