Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Review: Swinging '73 (2013)

By Matthew Silverman

Writing about a particular year of a sport is always a tempting idea. That's especially true in baseball, where the calendar offers an easy way to wrap the events up - the season starts in the spring and ends in the fall.

It's difficult, though, to make it work, particularly when trying to place that season in context with what's going on in the outside world. Something is bound to get short-changed along the way.

That's the short version of a description of Matthew Silverman's "Swinging '73." It's a look back at an interesting season from 40 years ago, which has some good moments but doesn't seem to entirely come together.

The 1973 season had its historical highlights. The Oakland A's were in the midst of their dynasty, filled with players who would battle opponents on the field and battle each other on it. They were really good, and the odd antics of owner Charlie Finley only seemed to bring them together for a while.

While the A's dominated the American League, the National League, especially the East, was something of a scramble. The year featured one of the truly odd pennant races in baseball history, with most of the teams in the NL East being equally mediocre. The Mets put on a burst in the season's final month, and passed all of the other contenders who were merely running in place and beating each other up. Good pitching (Tom Seaver, Jon Matlack, Jerry Koosman and Tug McGraw) can do that.

It was an interesting if not particularly historic or well-played World Series. It's remembered for Willie Mays' sad good-bye to the game, Mike Andrews' strange odyssey, and the Athletics winning the final two games to take the Series in seven.

Meanwhile, the event with the greatest long-term significance for the sport came in New York. Someone from Ohio named George Steinbrenner headed up a group that took control of the Yankees when it purchased it from CBS (which, in a typo I'd bet the author would like back, does not stand for Central Broadcasting System). Any baseball fan will tell you where that purchase led.

We also had the famous wife-swapping incident between a couple of Yankee pitchers, the upcoming renovation of Yankee Stadium, and the introduction of the designated hitter.  The rest of baseball is more or less overlooked.

Silverman does good work on the three teams that serve as the center of the book. He interviewed some of the principals from those seasons, and they provide some good stories. The story about the A's allocating playoff tickets with a skeleton staff by hand, for example, is a classic. Some of the players provide fresh insights.

The attempts to bring the rest of the world into the story don't work so well. For example, the book goes from the A's pre-playoff preparations straight into the Yom Kippur war in the Middle East, and the ensuing old embargo, and then back into Game Three of American League Championship Series. Stories about Watergate, television, football, music, and Wounded Knee are dropped into the text as well. It's difficult to say that adds much to the overall story. One of the rare books in which the technique works well is "Summer of '68," in which Detroit's urban problems serve as a backdrop for the Tigers' rise to the world championship.

Several baseball books have been written on particular pennant races, and this year comes across as a possible good candidate for such a treatment. The Mets' dramatic rise from last to first to win with an 82-79 record while everyone else in the division was under .500 was unique. The pennant race of 1967 was similar, and there have been other good ones, but this was a particular amazing scramble. Silverman, having written some good books on the Mets, seems well-qualified to tackle such a project.

Still, we have to judge the books we have in front of us. "Swinging '73"checks in at about 220 pages, so it's easy to zip through. If you have an interest in the A's and Mets of that era, you'll enjoy the book and the memories it provides.

Three stars

Learn more about this book.

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