Thursday, April 25, 2013

Review: Facing Ted Williams (2013)

Edited by Dave Heller

Some years ago, a book was written about what it was like to fight Muhammad Ali. An author tracked down some of his opponents over the years, and they talked about going into the ring against "The Greatest." That was followed by a book on fighting Mike Tyson, and one on hitting Roger Clemens (which, as I recall, was released shortly before the PED stories) came out.

It's a good concept, and it seems logical to hear about other all-time greats in this fashion. Thus, "Facing Ted Williams" was born. The problem was that the idea came along about 10 to 15 years too late, which will be explained in a minute.

Credit Dave Heller for doing plenty of homework here. He pulled together a list of how Williams did against every pitcher during a long career with the Red Sox, and then went about the business of tracking them down. He also talked to a few others who played other positions.

Each interview subject gets a heading with the times he was in the majors and career statistics. The pitchers get a breakdown of how they fared against Williams, complete with an at-bat by at-bat listing when available. For example, Williams was 4 for 8 lifetime against Dick Hall, who you might remember from some great Orioles teams in the Sixties, with a double, homer and five RBIs.

The biggest problem here is one of mortality. Williams finished his career in 1960, which is 53 years ago. Even the rookies in that year are in the their 70's and the veterans would be past 85. Sadly, there aren't many left, and some of them must be tough to find. If you go back a few years into the early-1950's, there are even fewer available candidates.

Even more to the point, the late 1950's and 1960 seasons weren't particularly good ones for the Red Sox. Most of Williams' important moments, the ones you'd like to read about even today, came in the 1940's. Therefore, we read first-hand stories about the end of a legendary career instead of its peak. There are a couple of accounts of his last game, in which he hit a home run in his last at-bat. 

The interviews have their ups and downs depending on the source. Virgil Trucks pitched in the 1940's and 1950's, and has seven pages of stories to tell. It's good stuff. Then there's Phil Regan, who needs two paragraphs to talk about walking him in 1960 in their only meeting. Everyone falls in between, obviously, but the brief ones outnumber the longwinded versions. The other positions' tales begin on page 185 of a 300-page book. Heller did find some players who had relationships with Williams that extended into retirement, who add some insight.

The editor also makes the slightly curious decision of including question-and-answer sessions with players who gave one-sentence (or so) answers to questions under sections called "Interviews." They really don't add much to the discussion.

Without stories to tell, most of the players go back to similar themes. Williams talked to practically everyone in a baseball uniform, friend or foe, about the game and had a fabulous memory. Activity used to stop when Williams went into the cage for some batting practice before games. And many people are convinced that if Williams didn't swing, few umpires would call a pitch a strike.

One interesting part of the book is that Heller has so much information at his fingertips. Therefore, when a pitcher talks about how nervous he was when he came into pitch as a rookie and the first batter was Williams, there's often a footnote - explaining that Williams was actually the third man up. Or someone says he pitched to Williams before a sold-out Comiskey Park, when the actual attendance was 19,121. Memories does play tricks after 60-plus years.

"Facing Ted Williams" does feature a good foreword by Wade Boggs and afterword by announcer Bob Wolff. The longer interviews do a good job of bringing Williams' vibrant personality back to life. There's just not enough of them to carry a book, which can be read in a day rather easily. Note to authors: don't wait 30 more years to do a book on Michael Jordan like this; get to work on it soon.

Two stars

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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Review: The Baseball Trust (2013)

By Stuart Banner

I must have made medical history today. I brought my copy of "The Baseball Trust" to the doctor's office for reading in the waiting room. I must be the only one in history to do so, since a book subtitled "A History of Baseball's Antitrust Exemption" usually isn't a competitor with People magazine in such places.

No matter. I learned a lot from Stuart Banner's book and I would guess most readers would too.

Baseball's relationship with antitrust laws is curious at best. Major league baseball has been a curious business for well over a century. Teams who are competitors on the field work together off it in a variety of ways, and that makes for a unique relationship.

Teams figured out relatively early that a top professional league needed to control the number and location of its franchises as well as the pool of talent in order to become established. The National League opted to create the reserve clause in a meeting in Buffalo in 1879, which held that certain players weren't allowed to jump to other teams when their contracts had expired.

The problem was that antitrust legislation started entering the national business world a few years later. Clever minds figured out that something was wrong with the system, and challenged it in a variety of ways. New leagues formed, players tried to sue for the freedom to play elsewhere, etc. Hal Chase, for example, successfully sued for the right to jump from the White Sox of the American League to the Buf-Feds of the Federal League in the middle of the 1914 season.

Inevitably, one case wound up in the Supreme Court, and the justices ruled in 1922's Federal Baseball Club that the sport was exempt from antitrust laws because it wasn't interstate commerce for the most part but merely exhibitions of talent in a particular state. That overlooked all sorts of factors, and is still considered one of the truly odd decisions in the Court's history.

From there, we've gone on an odd journey that extends to this day. The Supreme Court had a chance to change the situation with the Toolson case in 1953, but opted to throw back in the hands of Congress. The Curt Flood case was a similar story in 1972. Baseball still has most of its exemption to this day, useful in restricting franchise relocations as an example. That's in spite of the fact that other sports tried to have the same rules applied to them, only to be turned down by the courts. The reserve clause did die in 1975 with the Messersmith-McNally case.

Banner is a professor of law at UCLA, and obviously knows the material well. He draws from a variety of sources for this book, even drawing in the story of other sports nicely when appropriate, and his conclusions seem to be right on target along the way. If there's a catch here, it's that some of the writing is unavoidably dry. I wouldn't say a law degree should be presented when purchasing this book (I don't have one), but the reader does have to turn up the concentration level at times here.

"The Baseball Trust" isn't targeted at a particularly large audience and certainly some fans would never be able to get through it. However, others are aware that the background story about baseball's rules and regulations off the field can be almost as interesting as the ones on the field. For that audience, the book certainly will prove rewarding.

Four stars

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