Book Review: Joe Black – More Than a Dodger

Joe Black:  More Than a Dodger
354 pages
Chicago Review Press, 2015

One wouldn’t think a book about a "single-season wonder" could hold enough information to fill 350 pages. But this engaging life story written by Joe Black’s daughter, Martha Jo, and AP/UPI sportswriter Chuck Schoffner, captures the essence of a determined competitor in sport as well as life.  Joe was raised in the integrated town of Plainfield, New Jersey, but beginning in his university years, he faced life’s toughest curves from the challenges of Jim Crow.  As a young man in 1944, he aspired to pitch in the major leagues but was surprised to learn that he would probably never have that opportunity.  Not only did he achieve his dream in 1952, but he led his Brooklyn Dodgers to the pennant, leading the club in wins, earning Rookie of the Year honors, and finishing third in the MVP race.  That season he became the first African-American to win a World Series game.

But Joe Black was so much more than a one-dimensional sports figure.  Joe had an over-sized, magnetic personality that matched his later-in-life physical presence, allowing him to become a beloved school teacher and the first African-American Vice-President of a corporation of its size, when he worked at and later consulted for Greyhound.  From the 1980s until the end of his life he worked hard on behalf of major league baseball to aid retired ballplayers who had fallen upon hard times.

After divorcing Martha Jo’s mother, Joe was determined to win sole custody of his daughter, perhaps his biggest life challenge.  After all, the odds were clearly stacked against a black man in conservative Arizona during the early 1970s, especially considering that Martha Jo’s mom was also a "fit" parent.  But Joe miraculously prevailed and Martha Jo, who today works for Jerry Reinsdorf with the Whitesox, penned this labor of love to honor a top athlete, a great humanitarian, and an exceptional dad.

Though a great portion of the book has to do with his career leading up to, and during, his days with Brooklyn, you need not be a Dodger fan at all to enjoy this uplifting biography.

Book Review: Baseball’s Great Hispanic Pitchers

Title:  Baseball’s Great Hispanic Pitchers – Seventeen Aces from the Major, Negro and Latin American Leagues

Author:  Lou Hernandez

Published:  2015 by McFarland, ISBN:  978-0-7864-7975-7; $39.95 new, $13.99 ebook; 306 pages

Lou Hernandez deals us a winning hand of 17 aces with this review of baseball’s greatest Hispanic pitchers.  He covers the standout Hispanic pitchers of each era or decade, beginning with Ramon Bragana and Martin Dihigo in the Negro and Latin American leagues and wrapping up with current star King Felix Hernandez.  Along the way, the book has indepth coverage of Ramon Arano, Ruben Gomez, Orlando Hernandez, Juan Pizarro, Adolfo Luque, Camilo Pascual, Juan Marichal, Luis Tiant, Mike Cuellar, Dennis Martinez, Fernando Valenzuela, Pedro Martinez, Mariano Rivera, and Johan Santana.

The biographical chapter on each lanzador is loaded with facts, stats, and anecdotes.  Although the author admits upfront that he is a fan of the "old school" views that pitcher wins, innings pitched and complete games are important, he also effectively weaves in the use of sabermetric measurements to compare and contrast pitcher effectiveness across the decades.

Mr. Hernandez also offers his opinion as to the greatest season ever by a Hispanic pitcher.  His two finalists are Pedro Martinez in 2000 and "Dolf" Luque in 1923.  You’ll have to get the book to find his choice among the two, and rationale therein.

I enjoyed this book and learned a lot.  I think most SABR members will. 

Author(s) background: Lou Hernandez is a fellow SABR member and lifelong baseball fan.  His recent books include:  Memories of Winter Ball – Interviews with Players in the Latin American Winter Leagues of the 1950s (2013, McFarland) and The Rise of the Latin American Baseball Leagues, 1947-1961:  Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela (2011, McFarland).  Lou lives in Pembroke Pines, Florida.

Book Review: Houston Baseball – The Early Years 1861-1961

Title:  Houston Baseball – The Early Years 1861-1961

Editor and Contributors:  

Mike Vance (editor) with Bill McCurdy, Bob Dorrill, Joe Thompson, Steve Bertone, Marsha Franty and Mickey Herskowitz

Published:  2014 by Bright Sky Press; 368 pages; ISBN – 978-1-939055-74-3; $49.95 new

Special purchase offer:  While they last, SABR Hornsby Chapter members can purchase this book for $40.00, delivered.  Send a check made out to "Houston Baseball – The Early Years" c/o Bob Dorrill, 2318 Crimson Valley Court, Kingwood, TX 77345.

This book is a project of SABR’s Larry Dierker Chapter and chronicles baseball in Houston prior to the arrival of the Major League Colt .45s in 1962.  Individual chapters cover different eras of baseball in Houston – including:  Ante-bellum early baseball (1836-1861); pre-professional ball (1861-1887); early professional baseball (1888-1905);  the Texas League and affiliation with the Cardinals; and the Post-WWII era and transition to the Majors.  

Other chapters portray Houston’s ballparks, the Dixie Series, Black baseball, Amateur and Semi-Pro ball, and Spring Training/Exhibition baseball in Houston.  

No matter your particular interests in baseball, this well-researched and richly illustrated book has something for everyone.  Details of ante-bellum baseball (yes, there was baseball in Houston before the Civil War helped the sport to expand), the Buffaloes’ long relationship with Branch Rickey and the Cardinals, and the machinations that brought major league baseball to Houston, all offer revealing insight into the history of baseball in the Bayou City.

Whether or not you’re from Houston, a Buffs or Astros fan, a SABR member should enjoy this outstanding book.   

Book Review: Southern League

Southern League: A True Story of Baseball, Civil Rights, and the Deep South’s Most Compelling Pennant Race

by Larry Colton, 321 pages, published-2013

As a sabermetrician examines statistics in context, author Larry Colton examines baseball and civil rights in the same way with his well researched book on The Birmingham Barons’ 1964 season.  This was a particularly critical time in the history of our nation.  It’s one thing to be in the midst of the pressure of an exciting pennant race.  But if you were of Latin or African-American descent during 1964, playing baseball in the deep south, then that takes on quite a different dimension of pressure.  The players of color weren’t only targeted by the fans, but by other players, the police, politicians, and business owners.  After baseball had been disbanded there for two years for reasons directly related to segregation, Birmingham was granted a AA franchise by The Kansas City Athletics.  With the Civil Rights movement as a backdrop to baseball (or is it baseball as a backdrop to the Civil Rights movement?), the reader can view a turbulent time in American history through the eyes of the players, manager, and owner. 

Many of the "players" are well-known.  You will, of course recognize the names ‘Blue Moon’ Odom, Tommie Reynolds, Paul Linblad, Haywood Sullivan, Campy Campaneris, Ken Sanders, Charlie Finley, The 16th St. Baptist Church, The KKK, Bull Connor, and George Wallace.  Others such as Albert Belcher and Hoss Bowlin are not not so well known, but pivotal characters in their own right.  

The book by Larry Colton, who made his own barely-brief big-league appearance, is a quick read.  Anyone with any interest in minor league baseball and how the game affected and was affected by the social climate of those times will enjoy learning about these subjects through the eyes of those who lived them.

Book Review: Lost in the Sun

Title:  Lost in the Sun, Roy Gleason’s Odyssey from the Outfield to the Battlefield

Author:  Roy Gleason as told to Wallace Wasinack with Mark Langill

Published:  2005 by Sports Publishing LLC; 242 pages; ISBN – 1-58261-944-1; $24.95 new, used from $1.00

This book is the amazing true story of Roy Gleason, an LA Dodgers "bonus baby" who was a September, 1963 call-up for the pennant- and World Series-winning Dodgers.  Gleason appeared in eight games, primarily as a pinch-runner, scored three runs and hit a double in his only plate appearance.  He never appeared in the majors again, but his story doesn’t end there.  He is subsequently drafted, served in combat in Vietnam, and was wounded.  Gleason claims to be the only player that, after playing in the majors, saw combat duty in the Vietnam War.

Gleason’s story reads like part Roy Hobbs (The Natural) and part Crash Davis (Bull Durham).  He was a promising high school and minor-league baseball star, was signed for $55,000 in 1961, but had difficulties breaking onto the strong ’60s Dodger rosters.  After serving in Vietnam and recuperating from serious injuries sustained in combat, he was making progress on a baseball comeback.  But then, he was hurt again in a car accident, effectively ending his baseball career.

A quote from the Roy Hobbs character in The Natural certainly applies to Gleason:  "My life didn’t turn out like I’d planned."  But the book does have a feel-good ending of sorts.  SABR members would enjoy reading about it.

Author(s) background: Roy Gleason was born in Illinois and grew up in Los Angeles.  This is his first book and he has written several articles for newspapers and online.  Wally Wasinack is a business writer, educator and consultant.  Mark Langill was publications editor and team historian for the Los Angeles Dodgers.     

Book Review: Pete Rose, An American Dilemma

Title:  Pete Rose, American Dilemma

Author:  Kostya Kennedy

Published:  2014 by Sports Illustrated Books; 341 pages; ISBN – 978-1-61893-096-5; $26.95 new, from $11.88 used

This is a balanced, objective and lively account of Pete Rose’s life and career.  It portrays Rose as a man of contradictions, obsessed with winning, gambling, and making money; capable of kindness, engaging with fellow players and fans, and yet lacking of any moral compass.  Rose comes across as not a bad nor mean person, but lacking in compassion and basic sensitivity for the feelings of others.

Rose’s upbringing is explained and the reader will see how his "win at all costs" attitude came to dominate all other aspects of his personality.  His bitter war with baseball’s hierarchy is explored in depth; as well as his relationship with wives, girlfriends, and children.  A quote is illustrative of his insensitivity to his family — he returns a call that his wife had placed to his hotel room during a road trip, responding, "Karolyn, I knew it was you calling earlier, but I had a girl with me in the room." 

The author ends the dust-jacket summary with the following:  "Where has his improbable saga landed him in the redefined, post-steriod world?  Do we feel any differently about Pete Rose today?  Should we?"  SABR members will enjoy this book and exploring whether or not their opinions about The Hit King might change.

Author background:  Kennedy is an assistant managing editor at Sports Illustrated.  His most recent sports book is 56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports, a New York Times best-seller and winner of the 2011 Casey Award.

Book review: Where Nobody Knows Your Name

 Where Nobody Knows Your Name

Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball
by John Feinstein
A Baseball Book Review
Monte Cely
(512) 310-9777
            Where Nobody Knows Your Name follows a cast of baseball players, managers, and an umpire through the 2012 AAA International League season.  Feinstein captures the excitement and frustrations of participants at the AAA level, many of whom have some major-league experience and all of whom are expecting that call (or recall) to “The Show.”
            The book is full of quotes from the minor-leaguers themselves, as well as the author’s observations of life “one step from the big time.”  Although there are feel-good moments, much of the book mirrors the frustration of playing at AAA.  The reader gets a good feel for the travel grind and ever-prevalent career uncertainty of those toiling in the “minors”.  The challenges faced by a minor-leaguer’s family is also a prominent theme.
            The cast of characters is:
Players – Scott Elarton, Jon Lindsey, Nat McLouth, Scott Podsednik, Chris Schwinden, and Brett Tomko.
Managers – Charlie Montoyo and Ron Johnson.
Umpire – Mark Lollo.           
            This book is a revealing, objective, well-told look into minor league baseball.  It also has insights into minor-league operations and player contractual considerations.  The book should be an enjoyable and worthwhile read for SABR members.
Here are the key statistics:
Book:  Where Nobody Knows Your Name; Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball
Author:  John Feinstein
Author’s Credentials:  Feinstein is a columnist for The Washington Post, Golf World, and Golf Digest.  He also hosts or contributes on CBS Sports radio and TV, as well as the Golf Channel.  He has written many sports books, including A Season on the Brink (NCAA basketball) and A Good Walk Spoiled (PGA tour).
Published:  2014, Doubleday; ISBN 978-0-385-53593-9            Length:  368 pages
Price:  Retail list – $26.95; Online – from $13.01 + shipping.

Baseball Prospectus – Extra Innings book review

 Baseball Prospectus – Extra Innings

More Baseball Between the Numbers from
the Team at Baseball Prospectus
Edited by Steven Goldman
A Baseball Book Review
Monte Cely
(512) 310-9777
            Extra Innings is a sequel, of sorts, to Baseball Between the Numbers (the 2006 Baseball Prospectus book edited by Jonah Keri).  The book is a compilation of essays on various baseball topics, generally seeking to provide more insight via the use of statistical/sabermetric analyses.  Just a few of the topics addressed are:
“What Really Happened in the Juiced Era?” by Jay Jaffe – an insightful look at factors, including but not limited to PEDs, that led to the 1990-2005 power surge in MLB.
“How Should the Hall of Fame Respond to the Steroids Era?” by Jay Jaffe – a thoughtful treatment of this hot-button topic.
“How Does Age Affect the Amateur Draft?” by Rany Jazayerli – an analysis of the age of top draft picks as it affects their future WAR.
“How Can We Evaluate Managers?” by Steven Goldman – explores several statistical approaches to evaluating the effect that managers have on team results.
“When Does a Hot Start Become Real?” by Derek Carty – uses a correlation-based approach to determine a team’s final W/L% based upon its early start.
            … and many more.  There are twenty-two essays in total, organized into chapters on PEDs/Player Enhancement, Team-Building, Pitching, Fielding, Offense, and Futures.  Generally the essays are of good quality and I found most to be insightful.  This book will be interesting to SABR members.
Here are the key statistics:
Book:  Baseball Prospectus – Extra Innings
Editor:  Steven Goldman
Authors:  Derek Carty, Corey Dawkins, Mike Fast, Rebecca Glass, Steven Goldman, Kevin Goldstein, Jay Jaffe, Rany Jazayerli, Christina Kahrl, Ben Lindbergh,  Jason Parks, Dan Turkenhopf, Colin Wyers
Published:  2012, Basic Books; ISBN 978-0-465-02403-2            Length:  446 pages
Price:  Retail list – $27.99; Online – from $1.49 (used) + shipping.

Book Review: Trading Bases

Trading Bases

A Story About Wall Street, Gambling and Baseball
(not necessarily in that order)
by Joe Peta
A Baseball Book Review
Monte Cely
(512) 310-9777
            “To Caitlin, an 8 WAR wife, with a replacement-level husband.” Reading this opening dedication to the author’s wife, I knew I would probably enjoy this book. I wasn’t disappointed. 
            Trading Bases is essentially an autobiography by Joe Peta, a Stanford MBA and baseball fan. Due to circumstances beyond his control, Peta finds himself physically disabled and unemployed after a 15-year career as an equities trader. To keep himself financially and emotionally sustained while recovering from a serious automobile accident, the author decides to use sabermetrics and risk-management principles to “invest” in a baseball betting fund.
            Peta uses Bill James’ “pythagorian theorem”, WAR and other sabermetric approaches, along with a concept he calls “cluster luck”, to develop a betting edge against Las Vegas baseball oddsmakers. He has solid success in 2011, leading to his creation of a baseball betting “fund” and the writing of this book.
            Peta’s story is filled with anecdotes and examples of his equity trading experiences and how those informed his approach to the development of his baseball betting model. He gives concrete examples of his use of sabermetrics to find inefficiencies in the odds developed by Las Vegas sports books. He then reports month-by-month results for his baseball betting “fund”. He does all of the above with humor and a flair for the dramatic. He makes the math very accessible via numerous well-chosen examples.
            This book is a quick read and should be an enjoyable one for a baseball or investment fan, and definitely a must-read for anyone who is both!
Here are the key statistics:
Book: Trading Bases – A Story about Wall Street, Gambling and Baseball
Author:  Joe Peta
Author’s Credentials: Peta is a former Wall Street market maker and hedge-fund stock trader. This is his first book
Published: 2013, Dutton; ISBN 978-0-525-95364-7            Length: 369 pages
Price: Retail list – $27.95; Online – from $17.95 + shipping.

Book Review – Cuban Star

Cuban Star

How One Negro-League Owner Changed the Face of Baseball
by Adrian Burgos, Jr.
A Baseball Book Review
Monte Cely
(512) 310-9777
            Cuban Star is the story of Alejandro “Alex” Pompez, a baseball Hall-of-Famer who played major roles in the Negro Leagues and in the integration of major league baseball.
            Pompez was born in 1890 in Key West, Florida to immigrants who had fled the Spanish colonial regime in Cuba. Pompez’ father was active in the fight for Cuban independence, and this book explains the importance of “beisbol” as a symbol of the resistance struggle against the Spanish and as a means of raising funds to support the 1890’s revolution.
            Pompez lived in Key West and in Tampa before moving to Harlem as a young man. He built a business empire that included “running the numbers” as well as promoting sporting events, including his New York “Cubans” ball club. He was instrumental in bringing many darker-skinned Latinos into the Negro Leagues. As integration gradually destroyed the Negro leagues in the late 40’s to early 50’s, Pompez re-invented himself as a “super-scout” for the New York/SF Giants. In that role, he served as both recruiter and mentor for the first wave of dark-skinned Latins joining organized baseball.
            This book paints a story of baseball integration that is very different from the well-known version featuring Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey. Alex Pompez was at the center of that integration story, especially as it involved the Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans that entered baseball in the 1950-60s. It’s a compelling and informative story that should be of interest to SABR members.        
Here are the key statistics:
Book: Cuban Star – How One Negro-League Owner Changed the Face of Baseball
Author:  Adrian Burgos, Jr.
Author’s Credentials: Burgos is a professor of history at the University of Illinois. His previous book on baseball is Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos and the Color Line. His work has also been featured in The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, as well as on ESPN. 
Published: 2011, Hill and Wang; ISBN: 978-0-8090-9479-0.
Length: 302 pages.
Price: Retail list – $28.00; Online – from $2.00 (used) + shipping.