Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Book Review: Ninety Feet From Fame, by Mike Robbins

Ninety Feet from Fame, by Mike Robbins

You know, there are some books where I felt like I got incredible deals for the amount I paid for the amount of book quality. My copy of The Glory of Their Times cost me $4.98; The Donald Honig Reader cost $6.50. Moneyball rang in at a whopping $7.50. I think Ball Four ran me $6 or so. But these are big, well-known canonical baseball books, and you don't need me to tell you how good they are.

I spent $15 on my copy of "Ninety Feet From Fame", and it was worth every penny, and then some.

Even if you've read a bazillion books about baseball, and think you've heard every story there is, I can almost guarantee you that most of the stories in this book are ones you've never heard before. Most of the players are probably players you've never heard of. Many of them never even made it to the majors.

But they're all true. The wackiest part of reading this book was how I'd be on the bus reading, and as soon as I got to the computer at work or at home, I'd have to go to baseball-reference and look up the guys in there. Sometimes there'd be cases where it was even a player I must have seen before, and never noticed. Take the 1919 White Sox -- Most people are familiar with the eight "Black Sox" men, and the "Clean Sox" such as Schalk, the Collinses, Dickie Kerr, etc. But what about guys like Frank Shellenback? To my eyes, he was just another line, another stat, a young pitcher whose career ended quickly. But his story is great -- he was a spitball specialist who came up on the White Sox in 1918. They were a really good team, so there wasn't room for a young kid still figuring out his stuff. So he ended up back in the minors by the middle of the 1919 season. Getting sent down was great timing for him, as there was no danger of him being associated with the 1919 World Series. Unfortunately, the timing also couldn't have possibly been worse -- the spitball was outlawed in 1920, and as Frank was not a major leaguer at the time, he didn't make it onto the grandfather clause list allowing certain major leaguers whose careers depended on it to keep throwing it. So, Frank's major league career was over at the age of 20. But he could throw the spitter in the minor leagues still, and went on to win over 300 games in the minors, and later became a major league coach and scout.

This book is full of great stories about guys like Hal Smith, hitting the aforementioned forgotten home run in the 1960 World Series behind Bill Mazeroski; like Jim Davenport walking to drive in the winning run in the 1962 NL Dodgers-Giants playoffs; Harry Steinfeldt, the unpoetic third baseman of the Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance infield; Bill Voiselle (13-13, 3.63) and Vern Bickford (11-5, 3.25), the "two days of rain" on the 1948 Boston Braves rotation; Charlie Silvera, a career benchwarmer with 6 World Series rings as Yogi Berra's backup catcher, who had a career-ending broken leg when he finally got a real shot at a career; and an entire chapter about unluckily-named players, like 50's all-star Frank Thomas, not to be confused with our generation's Frank Thomas; Bill Lee (not the other all-star Bill Lee); Frank Baker with one career homer, not to be confused with another Frank Baker who was apparently a great prospect but failed to live up to his given name... because neither could live up to the nickname given to the original Frank "Home Run" Baker, of course. Or how about the other major league pitcher named Bob Gibson?

There's even a bunch of times where the story is basically along the lines of "You've heard of this guy for one particular event, sure, but do you know anything else about him?" Fred Merkle was actually one of the most intelligent players of his day but people only remember him for his "Boner" play in a 1908 game; Wally Pipp had a long and productive career and was a hard worker after his baseball playing ended, but people remember him only for taking a day off in 1925 which led to some rookie kid taking his spot at first base for the next 2130 games or so.

And of course, there's an entire chapter titled "Welcome to the Browns. Your identity is safe with us." about the hapless St. Louis Browns, and about their players who would undoubtedly be famous if they had played, well, anywhere else.

The best part about this book is the humorous way in which the stories are related. I laughed aloud on the bus many times while reading this. There's just jokes inserted in random places in the book which almost seem more appropriate for a satirical blog post than for a history book. Like, for example, who invented the curveball? Cooperstown says Candy Cummings, based on an article he penned in 1908. Bobby Mathews, a pitcher in the 1870's and 80's, the "original crafty junkballer", is just as likely a candidate and "he might have well responded [to the article] with a counter-claim, except he'd made the regrettable blunder of dying in 1898." And Mathews also had another missed shot at fame -- he won 131 games in the National Association, before these piddly major league things existed, and 166 games in the National League. If you combine those, that's 297, which is painfully close to the 300 mark. Quoth the book on this: "So perhaps it's for the best that National Association stats don't count. It would be a shame to think that three wins cost Mathews his shot at fame. On the other team, maybe some major league team would let him stage a comeback to get those last few victories. True, Mathews has been dead more than a century, but he was a crafty pitcher. He'd figure something out."

Honestly, I learned a lot from this book. I really enjoyed reading it -- it was full of interesting stories from every wake of baseball possible. Minor leagues, major leagues, Negro leagues, the AAGPBL women's league, players from Japan, Latin America, what have you, there's interesting stories to be found in every nook and cranny of baseball history. I can't even imagine where the author dug some of this stuff up. In some cases, I could imagine just staring at baseball-reference records going "Weird, I've never heard of this guy - what's his story?", like, say, Owen Wilson, who was the first man to get tagged out stealing third base to end a crucial World Series game -- I wouldn't have known that, but I probably saw his name at some point when looking up single-season records last year, given that the guy hit an absurd 36 triples in 1912, which has been the record since. Quoth the book: "Mr. Wilson was a man with an obvious fondness for reaching third base."

I give this book 10 stars out of 10. No, really, I do. It scores high on every axis I can think of: compelling, amusing, interesting, unique, entertaining, educating, etc -- and most of all, it's an excellent bus book, because all of the stories are one or two pages long at most. If you're looking for a book to buy for a baseball nerd for the winter gift-giving holidays, or if you're looking for an awesome book to read on the bus, or even just trying to learn more baseball trivia to win pub quizzes and impress your friends, it's totally worth buying and reading.

Afterwards, you might or might not want to check out They Tasted Glory, by Linkugel and Pappas, but don't buy it -- take it out from the library. It's also about "forgotten greats who will never be in the Hall of Fame", although it's written long enough ago that it includes Kirby Puckett in that list. It's mostly guys who had major league careers ended by tragic injuries. Also, it's just a chapter on each player -- it features Joe Wood, Pistol Pete Reiser, Herb Score, Hal Trosky, Tony Oliva, Thurman Munson, Ewell Blackwell, Dave Ferriss, Vean Gregg, Steve Busby, J. R. Richard, Tony Conigliaro, Paul Dean, Johnny Beazley, Mark Fidrych, and Lyman Bostock. I read this book about 3-4 months ago, so a lot of the stories were fresh in my head -- and while reading Ninety Feet From Fame, occasionally someone'd pop up and I'd be like "I've heard of this guy! But where?" and I realized they were in here. I'd give this book about 4 stars out of 10 -- like the Cy Young book I read a few weeks back, the content was fascinating and I learned a lot, but the writing style was sort of dry and not really entertaining. It did make a decent bus book. If I'd thumbed through it on the library shelf *after* finishing Ninety Feet From Fame, I'm not sure whether I would have bothered reading it.

Another book in this line that I've read, many more months ago, was Baseball's Forgotten Heroes by Tony Salin, which had its most interesting story in the first chapter: Pete Gray, the one-armed outfielder for the 1945 St. Louis Browns. After that, it covers Chuck Connors, Bill Lange, Dave Roberts (the other one), Larry Jansen, Joe "Unser Choe" Hauser, Paul Hines, Tony Freitas, Joe Bauman, Bruno Haas, Oscar Eckhardt, Wally Hebert, Billy Jurges, Art Pennington, Frenchy Bordagaray. Unlike the other books, this one is sometimes told from the third-person historian perspective, but several of the chapters are oral history Glory-of-Their-Times style in the voice of the players. I'd give this book 7 stars out of 10, because I enjoy the oral history aspect of it, and the other players in it are interesting as well; the writing style is slightly more compelling. I would have probably still read this regardless of when I discovered it, because most of the stories are more unique.

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