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Tom Seaver: A Terrific Life


Tom Seaver: A Terrific Life

Tom Seaver, the Hall of Fame pitcher for the New York Mets nicknamed “Tom Terrific,” passed away at the end of August after years of struggling with Lewy body dementia, the result of the Lyme disease he contracted decades ago in Greenwich, Connecticut. Given what he meant to the team and its devotees, it is not surprising that a couple of books came out towards the end of his life: TOM SEAVER AND ME by Pat Jordan, a professional ballplayer-cum-writer, and more recently, TOM SEAVER: A Terrific Life by Bill Madden, a veteran sportswriter for the New York Daily News.

Madden seems like an obvious choice to publish what must be considered the definitive work on Seaver to this point. (TOM SEAVER AND ME is more of a reminiscence of the friendship between Jordan and Seaver as opposed to a full-fledged biography.) As a Big Apple journalist, he was in a unique position to observe Seaver not only on the field as the leader of the heretofore lovable losers in 1967, but as a representative of the new generation of athletes who weren’t afraid to share their thoughts on the state of the game and the world. An ex-Marine, Seaver opposed the war in Vietnam, yet objected to the anti-war movement’s attempt to hijack him as a spokesman.

Seaver enjoyed the finer things in life, such as art, gardening and wine. In his post-baseball life, he moved to California where he became a serious vintner. And, as Madden frequently recounts, he enjoyed doing The New York Times crossword puzzle. I mention this last point because it reminded me of a scene in the movie Bull Durham, in which Max Patkin, the clown mascot of the team, talks up Crash Davis to Annie Savoy: “Helluva guy --- real different... I actually saw him read a book without pictures once.”

"There’s an aphorism: 'Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.' That’s most applicable to baseball fans’ feelings for A TERRIFIC LIFE, and endless thanks must go to Madden for this memorable gift."

Needless to say, Seaver was super, as his statistics attest. When he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1992, it was by the highest percentage of votes (99.8) until Ken Griffey Jr. beat the mark in 2016 (99.3; Mariano Rivera became the first unanimous selection three years later). However, not everything in Seaver’s universe was perfect. There was jealousy from teammates who were annoyed by his charmed life, including his perfect marriage. There was animosity from some in the Mets’ front office who believed he was getting too big for his britches. There was the famous battle with Madden’s Daily News colleague, the legendary columnist Dick Young, who essentially drove Seaver out of town in 1977 by bringing his wife into a story about contract negotiations, resulting in the pitcher’s demand to be traded (one of the worst in Mets history for a number of reasons).

After a few great seasons with the Cincinnati Reds, the Mets brought Seaver back but lost him again on a calculated gamble when they left him off a list of protected players. Sure enough, the man known as “The Franchise” was claimed by the Chicago White Sox, with whom he won his 300th game --- in New York (but against the Yankees). And the disappointment with his first team didn’t end there; Seaver and his family were always somewhat bitter that he was not included in more of the programs that marked their historical high points.

The individual games and accomplishments by Seaver and the Mets are well documented in dozens of other books. Where Madden excels is in Seaver’s pre- and post-Major League life. His dedication to the sport began when he was a little leaguer, too small to even make the local team at first. But he was determined and supported by a loving nuclear family to whom he was equally devoted; the description of his relationship with his older brother, Charles Jr., is truly touching. After high school, where Seaver had a good but not outstanding career, he chose to join the Marine reserves rather than enter college, figuring it would build his body and make him more physically and mentally disciplined. The results were obvious.

Fast forward: After a few years in the broadcast booth, for both the Yankees and Mets, Seaver moved on to the next chapter in his retirement by relocating to the West Coast where he built a notable wine business. It was there that he began developing increasingly alarming signs of his disease. I was surprised to learn that, like many of his teammates who played in an era before third-string infielders were pulling down multi-million-dollar salaries, Seaver earned extra money via the memorabilia industry. It was during some of these events that his symptoms really began to exhibit themselves. Afraid to learn that he had some dire medical issue, he declined to seek treatment early on and was almost relieved with the diagnosis, not understanding what would follow. Madden shares the heartbreak of the realization that our childhood heroes are mere mortals. To borrow from Shakespeare’s Shylock, they are “fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer.”

Madden has long been considered one of the best at his craft. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2010 as the recipient of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, the highest honor for writers covering the national pastime. Among his previous baseball books are STEINBRENNER: The Last Lion of Baseball; 1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever; and PRIDE OF OCTOBER: What It Was to Be Young and a YankeeBut aside from the factual, I’m wondering how difficult this particular project was for him, given his own connection with Seaver. Journalists are supposed to be professionally objective, but the personal has to creep in somewhere, especially when presenting the end of a legend’s life.

There’s an aphorism: “Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.” That’s most applicable to baseball fans’ feelings for A TERRIFIC LIFE, and endless thanks must go to Madden for this memorable gift.

Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on November 25, 2020

Tom Seaver: A Terrific Life
by Bill Madden

  • Publication Date: September 7, 2021
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction, Sports
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1982136227
  • ISBN-13: 9781982136222