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It’s been said lately that the strings are being pulled tightly in the publishing industry. Several factors are purportedly involved including the general decline of the printed word in our brave new internet driven world as well as the general malaise loosely termed “global recession”. Whatever, it’s said to be tough to get stuff published with titles already in the pipeline being dropped.
Maybe so, but you can’t prove it by the subjects of sports in general and baseball in particular. Not a week goes by without a feverish new tome on some subtle baseball footnote hitting the streets leaving us to wonder why anyone would want to read a whole book on such minor and irrelevant slices of reality let alone write or publish one.
Not that it’s all junk. Some is quite decently done and most of it is earnest. But there is too much of it and -- above all -- much too much of it is hopelessly redundant.
The name of the game, it seems, is to establish a far-fetched premise allowing the writer to come through the back door of a season or event or even a moment and rehash stuff that has already been rehashed ten thousand times or more. Do we really need a whole book proclaiming the 1978 playoff hassle between the Red Sox and Yankees as “the greatest game” ever played, which is a faintly silly notion at best?
The author of this uncertain panegyric is Richard Bradley, an Ivy League whiz kid who once was the editor of the slick New York journal, “George” where he was a colleague and partner of the star-crossed John F. Kennedy, Jr. of whom he has written an acclaimed biography. Which is all well and good but what qualifies him for this baseball assignment is vague, at best.
Bradley wasn’t there in ’78, didn’t grind out that snarling season, has never been on the beat, clearly has no meaningful connection with the material. The book’s publicity blurb boasts he conducted “exclusive interviews” with all the mighty actors in the melodrama -- Yaz, Goose, Reggie, Bucky, Boomer, Catfish, etc. -- which must mean the utterly countless comments they all made on the matter before the illustrious Mr. Bradley came along don’t count. You can count me as suspicious of anyone who claims to have had “an exclusive interview” with the always-available Reggie Jackson.
More to the point, why is it that anyone can write a book about baseball whereas on other topics you need to establish credentials and maybe even some authority, or at least a personal connection like “having been there” or “done that”. Authors, especially those who have a little celebrity, are casually drawn to the task because it’s easy, harmless, and highly profitable. In the old days “important writers” would rip off a travel book to make quick bucks. Now they write about baseball. Most anything about baseball will sell even if it is written by Jose Canseco.
The Red Sox being the fashion pace-setters of the moment with their “nation” being anxious to swallow anything on their pets as long as it’s sufficiently adoring tend to command more of this curious attention than most teams, even the Yankees.
Another superb example is a book just out that purports to explore the connection between the ’78 Red Sox and the much more serious matter of the city’s raging racial turmoil that centered back then on the issue of bussing. Written by a highly respected and professional local reporter with fine credentials it’s no surprise that it’s receiving good notices. While I haven’t yet read it, I don’t have to read it to reject its stated thesis as too thin.
There was utterly no connection between that detached, insular and thoroughly indifferent baseball team and the urban social conflict that raged all around it. That raucous baseball season and the intense civil unrest occupied two different universes. They may have been parallel but they were never in touch. Having been there for the entire ride -- every bloody minute of it -- I can guarantee that much.
And now -- just days ago -- comes another book dissecting the history of the Red Sox written by a chap named Jerry Gutlon. It’s been proclaimed ‘‘controversial’’ because it makes a harsh case against the Yawkey era, which it holds as having been rather debauched, and it is especially tough on old Uncle Tom himself. For sources, it relies heavily on ancient observers including your host (me). So inevitably much of the stuff is recycled. It means well but does it break new ground? I doubt it.
Keep in mind these are observations on the historical merit of new books and not “reviews” nor do we ever review books here unless it’s something written by a friend about which only nice things are said, which is made abundantly clear. “Reviews” are an art form best left to pros out of respect for the awful ordeal that is the writing of a book on anything. Literary merit is for others to define. It’s the impact on the historical record that concerns us here.
Two books mainly about the Yankees that exploded on the scene earlier this year were splendid examples of the subjectivity of that process and how it can be manipulated. The books are, obviously, Joe Torre’s too vengeful account of his Yankee years and Selena Roberts’ fierce but overwrought evaluation of A-Rod’s muddled life in progress. Both books got firestorms of early publicity insuring safe profits and both now look more like bottle rockets that launched colorfully but fizzled fast. Quite simply the stature of both works is eroding; still more proof that you can’t fool all the people all the time.
For sure, Torre’s book, thanks to the early rush, enjoyed two months atop the New York Times best seller list (sliding to 61st at last check) but you needn’t be too impressed. Bill O’Reilly’s latest snoozer was on top for 28 weeks and lingered long after. Those who had the pleasure of working with O’Reilly during his wilderness years in Boston find it hard to believe so many are so interested in the tender tales of the Biffer’s flaming youth and formation; but then there is no accounting for taste, especially in America.
Whatever, the fact remains that the once beloved Joe Torre, sainted man of the people, badly trails a cranky and quirky cable news pontificator in terms of public interest. That doubtless comes as a great blow to Torre’s considerable ego. In the end, Joe went too far. There was a certain “I don’t get mad, I get even” quality to his reminiscences. They were much too selective. All of this was recognized. He went too far. He never should have done that book.
Roberts, an acknowledged pro who has long had an angry edge in her reporting, also failed in the end; although her outing of Alex Rodriguez as a notably hypocritical steroid abuser can’t be diminished. She nailed him although the revelation was probably inevitable. He was already damaged goods and he could never have ducked the truth a lifetime. He’s too big, too hot, too vulnerable.
It was a huge story but in the end it upstaged her book ironically working against her. The further proof of his alleged character flaws that she offered seemed frivolous. She breathlessly revealed he was an insufficient tipper at joints like “Hooters” which was deemed laughable. She claimed he was shamelessly tipping pitches to enemy batsmen seeking strangely to curry favor, something baseball men near universally rejected and that was very damaging.
Overall, her documentation was too thin with too much of it coming from anonymous sources or consisting of mere gossip. On the street, they now murmur that the A-Rod blockbuster ‘‘fails to meet expectations’’. Sorry, Selena but you over-swung, kid.
As a venue, sports literature grows and the profits are considerable. So more is expected and it should be. The demand increases that sports books be well-sourced, accurately documented, factual, less reliant on gossip and random anecdote, original, and authentic. It is not too much to ask.