Tuesday, May 27, 2008
Let's start off with a book review.
The 1970's may not have been a great era for America - Watergate, malaise, gas shortages, the Iranian Hostage Crisis, bell-bottom pants and disco - but it was actually a good era for baseball in many respects. The game had declined in the late 1950's as the public left the cities near their teams in favor of the suburbs. Football, a game uniquely suited for television, took off in popularity following the 1958 NFL title game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants, as the NFL-AFL rivalry in the 1960's spurred interest in the game. Baseball no longer seemed relevant in the rebellious era of the 1960's. Pitchers came to dominate the game in the '60s, great stars like Mickey Mantle retired, fans felt disconnected to the game and baseball seemed ill-suited to adapting with the changing times.
That changed in the 1970's as baseball emerged from the dark days of the 1960's and began to embrace a more exciting form of baseball. Speed combined with power and made baseball more exciting and multifaceted than it had been in the station-to-station, wait for the home run 1950's. Dramatic personalities entered the picture, a welcome departure from the staid conformity of the 1950's. George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees, that symbol of 1950's establishment corporatism, and injected some life into a dull entity. The Oakland A's won three consecutive titles between 1972 and 1974, featuring a team that was never dull and uninteresting. Oh, and some guy out in Kansas City took out some paper and began to write about baseball in his spare time as a night watchman. It was, in many respects, a great era for baseball.
It is with all of that in mind I sat down and began to read Hammerin' Hank, George Almighty and the Say Hey Kid, the story of the 1973 baseball season. Written by John Rosengren, Hammerin' Hank has a lot of material to move through and I wanted to see what the author did with it. I was very impressed with Rosengren's approach. He really tries to move the reader to get a feel for the season as it unfolded, practically day-by-day. As the story moves along we get to see how the '73 season unfolded, but we also hear about Nixon and Watergate and how events outside of the game drove the public and impacted the game.
Some things about the '73 season that Rosengren reminds us:
-Hank Aaron made his run on Babe Ruth's record of 714 home runs in the 1973 season before falling a little short and breaking the record early in the '74 season. Aaron's story is pretty dramatic: the virulent racism hurled at the quiet man whose sin was that he was black and exceptionally talented. Aaron made his run on Babe Ruth's record amid exceptional hatred and intimidation. Rosengren's book is worth reading alone for the discussion about Aaron's season from hell.
-The novel Designated Hitter Rule began in '73, an innovation which would dramatically alter the game. It would seperate the American League from the National League and be an excellant example of how innovations to the game in the '70s helped bring fans back.
-What a colorful and exciting group the 1970's Oakland Athletics were. Reggie Jackson, Jim "Catfish" Hunter, Joe Rudi, Dick Williams and Owner Charlie Finley - I doubt that baseball will ever see such an interesting and diverse collection of personalities to grace the game ever again. The A's feuded and fought and argued and won again and again and again. Aside from the Yankees, no other franchise has won three consecutive World Series as the A's did from '72 to '74. If Charlie Finley had the financial resources of Steinbrenner, who purchased the Yankees in '73, the A's of the 1970s might have stayed together and done terrific things. Sadly, we'll never know.
I loved every page of Hammerin' Hank, George Almighty and the Say Hey Kid and couldn't put it down once I picked it up. That's what a good book should do for you ...
Labels: Book Review