Lou Gehrig: Pride of the Yankees, by Paul Gallico****

lougehrigThis baseball bio was written a long time ago and is now available digitally. Thank you to Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media for allowing me an advance glimpse in exchange for my review.

Lou Gehrig, Iron Man”, the first baseman who served alongside Babe Ruth on the Yankees’ Murderers Row in the 1920’s, was the kind of athlete you don’t read about much these days. He was born so poor that he went through New York City winters without a coat to wear to school. His parents were German immigrants who had never heard of baseball; he himself was a hard working, clean living young man who dropped out of Columbia University to play ball because his father was sick and his parents needed the money. He kept a clean mouth, was faithful to his wife, and didn’t abuse the press or his fellow athletes. The terrible disease that would be named after him killed him before he hit forty.

The biography is unusually short, just 77 pages long. Ordinarily I don’t prefer to read anything that brief, but I’ve mowed through some baseball biographies in the past year already, and I decided 77 pages was as much as I was good for on this subject. However, this was well done enough that I would have been willing to keep reading had it gone longer.

Gallico, Gehrig’s biographer, is eloquent, using what would now be considered a prosy, old-fashioned style, sentimental, and deeply affectionate. He was a legendary sportswriter himself back in the day, but quit in order to write fiction; he is also the author of The Poseidon Adventure.

Recommended to those that love baseball, or just a good biography.

The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams, by Ben Bradlee Jr. *****

thekidThe Kid is the definitive biography of baseball legend Ted Williams, a hall-of-famer who still holds the record .406 batting average today, though he is (mostly) gone. Carefully documented, fluently told, and brilliantly edited, this baseball bio is not a quick read, yet there is also not a single word in it that is not necessary. Your humble reviewer walked away from the opportunity to receive a DRC, unsure I wanted to mow through over 700 pages with the amount of speed and diligence necessary to fulfill an obligation to the publishers. Recently I was able to get a copy to read at my leisure independently, and have enjoyed a fascinating glimpse at one of the most complicated figures in American sports history.

Williams was a tremendously gifted athlete, one with an intelligent approach who carefully analyzed his vocation and the physics related to it at a time when nobody in baseball was doing that yet. He spent one year in the minors, then went straight to the major leagues and the glory that quickly became his. Williams was an incredible hitter but struggled for a long time as a fielder, back before the “designated hitter” position existed. His career was twice interrupted for military service, and he chose to go down with his flaming fighter plane in Korea rather than risk breaking his legs—and possibly ending his baseball career—by bailing out and parachuting down to safety.

His personality was riddled with contradictions. Politically he was known for his rock-ribbed Republican conservatism, snubbing JFK’s overature but embracing Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and HW Bush. He avoided an endorsement of McCain for the presidency only because “Bush’s kid” was also running, and he wanted to remain loyal to the Bush family.

Yet with regard to race issues, he was among the most liberal. Bradlee says that the “curse of the Bambino”, i.e. the inability of the Boston Red Sox to win a pennant or a ring for a prolonged time period, was actually brought upon the team by its owner’s refusal to integrate the team long after the rest of Major League Baseball had done so. Williams, however, sent a letter of congratulations to Jackie Robinson when he broke the color barrier, and although Williams did not take part in the Civil Rights movement, not seeing it as his place as one who owed allegiance to the owners of his contract, nevertheless encouraged integration when it unfolded and was more welcoming toward Black players than most other Caucasian athletes in Boston. He paid tuition quietly and usually anonymously for promising young athletes on both sides of the color line.

It is speculated that part of this attitude toward minority players was due to his own Mexican heritage (on his mother’s side), but we will never know. He didn’t talk about it.

His antipathy toward the press, and particularly toward the local press, was legendary.

On the other hand, he secretly spent his time off visiting children in cancer units around New England, stipulating only that his time and money must never be publicized, apart from work done for his charity, the Jimmy Fund, which he established for sick kids whose families could not afford medical care.

In addition to being one of the most gifted hitters of all time, Williams was a prodigious, accomplished, avid fisherman, and spent most of his months away from baseball fishing in Florida, Canada, and even Latin America. In fact, everything he approached with great enthusiasm and with an analytical viewpoint, he seemed to master.
His marriages were disastrous, his children dysfunctional. The last years of his life were exploited badly by his only son, John-Henry, and Bradlee suggests, with good cause, that Ted perhaps was trying to make up in his dotage for his failure to guide and raise his children when they were young.

A tremendous scandal broke out at the end of his life when John-Henry sent Ted’s remains to a cryogenic facility to be decapitated and frozen. Denial may not, as Twain said, be “just a river in Egypt”, but some of us take it farther than others. John-Henry (and in time, his sister Claudia) wanted to have the family frozen in the hope they would one day all be thawed; the vagaries of age and disease scientifically reversed; and then they could all be happy together. A daughter from Williams’ first marriage was greatly upset by this and took the matter to the press; she was eventually paid to settle down and go away, but the family’s reputation was ruined beyond redemption.

Bradlee deserves a great deal of credit for his readable yet scholarly narrative. This reader was fascinated by most of Williams’ life story, though I never saw him play. (Readers who are also fishing enthusiasts will be delighted, no doubt, but I am not one, and confess that some of his fishing exploits and achievements left me glassy-eyed.)

Those looking for a strong baseball biography about one of the sport’s greatest players need look no further. The Kid is an absorbing look into both the life of Williams as well as the history of baseball. Recommended for those that love the sport and have the stamina required to read a comprehensive biography.

Mickey and Willie: Mantle and Mays, the Parallel Lives of Baseball’s Golden Age, by Allen Barra ***-****

mickey and willieThree stars for general interest; four stars for a niche audience. If you enjoy baseball and also like biographies, this may be a winner for you. Thank you to Crown Publishing and edelweiss for the advance reader’s copy.

As for me, I found myself wishing I had read separate biographies of each of these players before tackling one that compares the two. The first third of the book was very slow going for me, because the narrative flips from one to the other frequently, and during their growing up years I found myself becoming confused…now wait a second, which one has the horse? There was so much minutiae and I had a hard time keeping track.

That said, the story has a certain elegance. I like the fact that it breaks apart stereotypes: Willie Mays grew up in the Jim Crow south, but his family was part of the Black middle class, urban folks with a degree of sophistication. Pictures of him as a youngster show a well developed, well nourished child wearing a nice suit. Mantle, on the other hand, grew up in a very poor mining community in Oklahoma. Had baseball not permitted him to escape Commerce, Oklahoma, he would likely have had to go into the mines as well.

Mantle was diagnosed early in life with osteomyelitis, and nearly had to have his leg amputated. Though he was able to save the leg and go on to run like lightning on the field, he was booed by New York fans who were convinced he had dodged the draft. His agent and manager both spread the word that he had been declared unfit to serve because of his condition, but the fans saw the man run and, in the parlance of the time, believed his sick-leg story to be a lot of hooey.

Mays tried to avoid the draft by pointing out correctly that he had eleven dependents, but they made him serve anyway. However, he was never placed in harm’s way, and spent his tenure in the armed forces playing ball for a military team. When he returned to the professional field, he was already in shape, just as if he’d been off playing winter ball for a year or so.
This middle portion of the book is very interesting and has a photograph section that can actually be seen on an e-reader, a definite bonus. I enjoyed reading about their professional lives, and since they start far away from one another and grow gradually closer until they are together, the transitions are buttery smooth.

The end portion of the book is a let-down, although since it discusses their careers and bodies in decline, it is probably inevitable; I felt it could have done with some pruning, but those who hang onto every individual statistic will enjoy the charts and comparisons.

To me, however, trying to decide which athlete is “better” is specious. Who cares? They are both legends. They both deserve to be remembered well. There is no contest, as far as I am concerned.

Seeing how they struggled financially once they could no longer play was really a sad thing, and a good reminder of why star athletes earn every penny they make. By their late 30’s they will be deemed old men, and most of their lives will still be in front of them. Not everyone can become a coach, a manager, or an announcer. There aren’t enough of those positions, and many athletes aren’t gifted as writers, speakers, or teachers. They know what to do, but it’s muscle memory, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.

Barra’s research is mostly comprised of secondary sources; he has a few brief interviews, but his perpetual insistence on badgering Mays over his abstinence from the Civil Rights struggle got him cut off time after time. Mays was a reticent person, and it struck me once again that Black athletes have put up with such double standards; nobody climbs all over a Caucasian player who simply isn’t political and prefers to keep his thoughts to himself. Yet Mays hears about it all the time, and his biographer here is as bad as any of them.

I appreciated his references to what he says are the best biographies of each man individually; those are now on my to-read list. Meanwhile, I recommend this book to die-hard baseball enthusiasts who already know a little something about Mays and Mantle individually.