BrooklynFans Of Books: On Baseball & American History

(Yankee Stadium – Photo by Jason Schott)

Baseball is intertwined into the fabric of America like no other sport, and there are three books out now that tell these amazing stories of larger themes around the game.

Former White House presidential speechwriter Curt Smith looks at the relationship between the U.S. Presidency and baseball in The Presidents and the Pastime: The History of Baseball and the White House. Longtime player and manager Felipe Alou, the first player from the Dominican Republic to play in the major leagues, is out with his autobiography, Alou: My Baseball Journey. Amy Essington looks at how the minor leagues integrated faster than the majors in her detailed work, The Integration of the Pacific Coast League: Race and Baseball on the West Coast.

The Presidents and the Pastime: The History of Baseball and the White House

By Curt Smith

Nebraska University Press, 504 pages, $29.95

Curt Smith draws on his extensive background as a former White House presidential speechwriter to chronicle the historic relationship between baseball, the “most American” sport, and the U.S. presidency in The Presidents and the Pastime.

Smith, who USA Today calls “America’s voice of authority on baseball broadcasting,” starts before America’s birth, when would‑be presidents played baseball antecedents. He charts how baseball cemented its reputation as America’s pastime in the nineteenth century when such presidents as Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson playing town ball or giving employees time off to watch.

Each chapter is filled with fascinating anecdotes, such as Woodrow Wilson being buoyed by baseball after suffering disability; a heroic FDR saving baseball in World War II; Jimmy Carter, taught the game by his mother, Lillian; Ronald Reagan, airing baseball on radio that he never saw—by “re-creation.” George H. W. Bush, for whom Smith wrote, explains, “Baseball has everything.”

Smith interviewed a majority of presidents since Richard Nixon, and tracks every U.S. president from Theodore Roosevelt to Donald Trump.

Smith shares personal stories on each, such as this about the 45th president: “Trump resembled Pete Rose via Dustin Pedroia by way of Enos Slaughter – the most never-say-die kid in town. The Washington Post wrote, ‘Trump’s uniform was often the dirtiest on the field, and he shrugged off foul balls clanging off his mask.’…According to two boyhood neighbors, the Post continued, when making an out he could erupt, hitting another boy or smashing a baseball bat, without apology. By sixth grade Trump was such a feared right-hand pull hitter that rival teams shifted to left field. ‘If he had hit the ball to right, he could’ve had a home run because no one was there.’ said schoolmate Nicholas Kass. ‘But he always wanted to hit the ball through people. He wanted to overpower them.’

“All the traits that in 2016 made Trump loved or loathed loomed early: defiance, work, study, rage. So did his love of ball. In sixth grade he wrote a poem, published in his yearbook:

“‘I like to hear the crowd give cheers,

so loud and noisy to my ears.

When the score is 5-5, I feel like I could cry.

And when they get another run, I feel like I could die.

Then the catcher makes an error,

not a bit like Yogi Berra.

The game is over and we say

tomorrow is another day.’

“Rhyming ‘error’ with ‘Berra’ suggests that Trump preferred action to reflection, an attitude that by 2016 made his net worth between $10 billion (his estimate) and $3.0 billion (Bloomberg’s). In 1987 Trump released his first book, The Art of the Deal, which topped the best-seller list, built name recognition, and became the philosophy that led to the White House door.

“In 1964 the Red Sox visited the New York Military Academy to talk with Trump about delaying college. Again he chose ‘real money’ over baseball money, spending the next two years at Fordham University in the Bronx.”

The Presidents and the Pastime provides a riveting narrative of how America’s leaders have treated baseball. From William Howard Taft as the first president to throw the “first pitch” on Opening Day in 1910 to Barack Obama’s “Go Sox!” scrawled in the guest register at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014, our presidents have deemed it the quintessentially American sport, enriching both their office and the nation.

Alou: My Baseball Journey

By Felipe Alou, with Peter Kerasotis, Foreword by Pedro Martinez

University of Nebraska Press, 336 pages, $29.95

Felipe Alou, who grew up in a tiny shack in the Dominican Republic, never dreamed he would be the first man to go from his country to play and manage in Major League Baseball—and also the first to play in the World Series. Today, the Dominican Republic produces more Major League players than any country outside the United States.

In this extraordinary autobiography, Alou tells of his real dream: to become a doctor. An uncle was funding his university education when an improbable turn of events intervened at the 1955 Pan American Games. There as a track and field athlete, Alou was pressed into service on the baseball field to replace a player sent home for disciplinary reasons. A scout noticed Alou and offered him two hundred pesos to sign a pro contract. Knowing his father owed the grocer exactly two hundred pesos, Alou signed.

Battling racism in the United States and political turmoil in his home country, Alou persevered, paving the way for younger brothers Matty and Jesús and scores of other Dominicans, including his son Moisés. A fourth Alou brother, Juan, might have joined the historic trio if not for the improbable direction his own life took.

Alou became a special friend of Roberto Clemente, roomed with Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal, and Joe Torre, and suffered the tragic death of his firstborn son.

Alou played seventeen years in the Major Leagues, accumulating more than two thousand hits and two hundred home runs. He then went on to a successful career as a manager, which he was for fourteen years—four with the San Francisco Giants and ten with the Montreal Expos, where he became the winningest manager in franchise history.

Alou had the 1994 Expos, a team led by Pedro Martinez, his son Moises Alou, Marquis Grissom, Larry Walker, Rondell White, and John Wettleland, on track for the World Series, but the strike intervened and the season ended prematurely in August.

On what might have been with the Expos, Alou writes, “If we had maintained our 74-40 pace for the rest of the season, we would have won 105 games, the most since the 1986 World Series champion Mets. In fact, only two teams logged more single-season victories int he decade of the ’90s – the 1998 Yankees (114) and Braves (106). It’s why we felt so bad for the players. Fans were always giving me credit for how we were winning, and I would tell them no, no, no- it’s this team. Those guys were so talented. They could make so many plays and win in so many different ways – an inside-the-park home run, stealing home, striking out the side with the bases loaded, clutch home runs, diving catches, double steals, grinding at-bats.

“The media, the fans, the players…they’ve never forgotten that team. Not a week goes by when I’m not asked about the 1994 Montreal Expos. It still hurts. I hurt for the fans who were packing Olympic Stadium and turning it into a madhouse. And I hurt for the players who deserved a better outcome. I was named NL Manager of the Year after the season, but to me it never felt legitimate. Whjy should I win something when the players didn’t have a chance to win anything?”

Alou’s pioneering journey is embedded in the history of baseball, the Dominican Republic, and a remarkable family.

The Integration of the Pacific Coast League: Race and Baseball on the West Coast

By Amy Essington

University of Nebraska Press, 192 pages, $19.95

One untold story in baseball history is how, while Jackie Robinson’s 1947 season with the Brooklyn Dodgers made him the first African American to play in the Major Leagues in the modern era, the Minor League affiliates moved faster on integration.

The Pacific Coast League (PCL), a Minor League with its own social customs, practices, and racial history, and the only legitimate sports league on the West Coast, became one of the first leagues in any sport to completely desegregate all its teams. Although far from a model of racial equality, the Pacific Coast states created a racial reality that was more diverse and adaptable than in other parts of the country.

Amy Essington, in The Integration of the Pacific Coast League, describes the evolution of the PCL beginning with the league’s differing treatment of African Americans and other nonwhite players. Between the 1900s and the 1930s, team owners knowingly signed Hawaiian players, Asian players, and African American players who claimed that they were Native Americans, who were not officially banned.

In the post–World War II era, with the pressures and challenges facing desegregation, the league gradually accepted African American players. In the 1940s individual players and the local press challenged the segregation of the league. Because these Minor League teams integrated so much earlier than the Major Leagues or the eastern Minor Leagues, West Coast baseball fans were the first to experience a more diverse baseball game.

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