Reviews

Title: Sports Illustrated: Fifty Years of Great Writing 1954-2004
Pages: 560
Price: $11.02 (from Amazon.com)

Ever since 1954, Sports Illustrated has long featured some of the best writers producing some of their finest work. Men of the typewriters like Frank Deford, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Leigh Montville, and Garrison Keillor are represented within the pages of SI. These names comprise a Who’s Who of both modern English literature as well as sports journalism.

There are an assortment of sports covered, including, but not limited to, football, basketball, horse racing, and boxing. Most importantly for this site, the baseball articles are both common and excellent. What follows is a brief synopsis of all of the works related to the National Pastime.

Yogi Berra, an excellent ballplayer but an even better person to talk to after the game, receives an in-depth story. Roy Blount Jr. begins his work by taking a look back on Berra’s career before moving to manage under the difficult George Steinbrenner. He adds quotes from yogis (people who practice yoga) and compares them to the philosophic sayings of the famous backstop.

Next is an article about Johnny Podres. Brooklyn Dodger fans may remember the pitcher as the man who delivered the bums a World Championship over the hated Yankees in 1955. But the column is more than a recap of that fateful game, but rather the telling of how Podres’ grandfather left the mines of Russia to move to America. Podres’ father toiled in the mines of Pittsburgh, but Johnny worked on the mound of Major League Baseball, the one bum who gave Dodgers fans the only thing they wanted.

One of the most electrifying moments in baseball history, the day Bobby hit his home run, is the centerpiece of Roger Kahn’s contribution to the baseball section. Kahn takes the reader through Thomson’s fateful day and leaves us with the third baseman on top of the world, at a loss for words other than “Gee, whiz.”

No baseball book would be complete without some sort of story written about the legendary Bill Veeck. The owner of many downtrodden franchises, Veeck turned them into winners and teams that fans could support. Outside of Steinbrenner, he might have been the most influential owner in baseball history, and William Barry Furlong tells us his story.

“‘I Managed Good, but Boy Did They Play Bad’” is the title of a story written by Gilbert Rogin, as well as a quote delivered by Rocky Bridges, a manager in the minor leagues at the time. I had never heard of Bridges’ name before, so this was an excellent article that helped illuminate a piece of history I had never encountered before.

Mel Allen, a long time voice of the New York Yankees and “This Week in Baseball,” has his own portion of the book, written by Huston Horn. This tells the story of Allen’s -- his actual name was Melvin Israel -- rise through the ranks of television to the pinnacle of his profession.

Making his second appearance in the baseball section, Ray Blount Jr. writes about his time playing against the 1969 Cubs. Of course, as with all sports writers, he never reached the professional level of his sport. His chance to step on the field with the Cubbies came during Spring Training of 1983, when he joined a fantasy camp to work with the players. It’s a wonderful trip through the work the players put in to prepare themselves for the upcoming season.

Sidd Finch, the right handed pitcher who can throw over 150 mph, makes his appearance with a George Plimpton article in 1985. He attributes his freakish ability to living in a monastery and learning how to pitch through enlightenment. All throughout Spring Training, the Mets attempt to persuade Plimpton to try out for the team, and, in the end, he accepts their offer to dominate Major League hitters. Before you look through the history books, the publication of this article was April 1st.

Garrison Keillor writes about the time Babe Ruth traveled to Lake Woebegone, a fictional town. Fans streamed out to watch the Babe play, but he didn’t come out of the dugout late in the game. How does ol’ Babe fair against a youngster looking to strike out a legend? You can probably guess, because the Babe does have 714 home runs.

Everyone remembers the 1962 Mets as the worst team in baseball, but columnist Jimmy Breslin writes about the team that made cheering for mediocrity all right. The story travels with manager Casey Stengel — who mysteriously lost all of his managerial intellect after taking over this team -- through several rough losses.

The legendary Harry Caray, nicknamed “The Big Wind in Chicago,” has a portion of the book dedicated to the story that has been his career in broadcasting. Ron Fimrite tells how Caray moved from announcing in St. Louis for 25 years and the south side of Chicago, the two chief rivals of the Cubs, before settling into his spot in the north side of the Windy City where he became a legend.

Leigh Montville next tells about three moments he shared with his idol, Ted Williams. The first came as an autograph hound seeking the John Hancock of the famous player. Actually meeting Williams in person and hearing the Splendid Splinter argue about which detergent the Red Sox should use when cleaning the team’s uniforms in Spring Training was the second. And the third encounter was an interview he did with Williams at the age of 80, just a couple of years before Teddy Ballgame passed away.

“The Ripples from Little Lake Nellie,” written by Gary Smith, details the story of the death of two Major League pitchers Tim Olin and Steve Crews and how it affected their former teammates on the Cleveland Indians in 1993.

The collection finishes with a piece called “Laughing on the Outside” by John Schulian. In 2000, Schulian told the story of one of the greatest baseball players nobody ever talks about: Josh Gibson. The famous backstop from the Negro Leagues never receives much press, but he’s always referred to as the Black Babe Ruth and is rumored to have hit a home run completely out of Yankee Stadium.

All in all, these stories make quite a contribution to any baseball fan’s book collection. Sports Illustrated has long produced some excellent work and this anthology gathers the best. For the pure baseball fan, I rate this book 3 balls out of 4. You can find it here.

Our Rating System is based on a four ball system as follows:
One Ball: Average. It has something to say but is nothing special.
Two Balls: Something men usually have - also means its a cut above average, and worth reading/owning.
Three balls: Stands out from its peers and is highly recommended.
Four Balls: More than just what two men have when hanging out together, it means it is an exceptional book that truly earns a walk — straight to the local book store to get a copy.