Clearing the Bases
Jim Bouton, the only knuckleballer on the New York Public Library's Books of the Century List
, has a new book out. Called Foul Ball: My Life and Hard Times Trying to Save an Old Ballpark
, the book is a diary of Bouton's efforts to save the oldest minor-league park in America (Waconah Park) and the often absurd resistance he encounters in the process from a small-town Massachusetts community.
As the story goes, Bouton (who lives in the Berkshires near Pittsfield, where the ballpark is) was involved in a partnership which attempted to bring an independent league team (from either the Atlantic League or the Northern League) to Waconah Park and keep it there as they renovated the stadium. The city of Pittsfield ultimately accepted a competing proposal
to field a Northern League team there, with an eye towards building a new ballpark. The battle was clearly an acrimonious one
which gave Bouton some new insights into what he calls "America's new hostage crisis," the practice of team owners extorting publicly-funded stadiums out of taxpayers under the threat of moving their franchises.
Even Bouton's efforts to get the book published were a challenge. He terminated his contract
with the book's original publisher, PublicAffairs, after a top General Electric lawyer invested in the company and subsequently demanded removal of certain passages critical of GE. The book is now published by his own company, Bulldog Publishing, and is available (with a personalized inscription) via Bouton's website
as well as through the usual outlets.
On a different note, Bouton's got a piece
in the Sunday New York Times
about a new exhibit at the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan
. Called "The Perfect Game: America Looks at Baseball," the exhibit is devoted to the variety of ways fans have channeled their love of the game into artistic expression. Writes Bouton of attending the exhibit:
For a few hours I was a kid again, reliving memories sparked by the dozens of puppets and paintings, quilts and carvings, weather vanes and whirligigs that combined my two earliest passions — baseball and art. From age 5, I've been told, I was either throwing a ball or drawing a picture. I began with cowboys and graduated to baseball players. I would take my colored pencils and draw faces of players on the New York Giants, my favorite team. Little did I know I was creating something that might one day be characterized as art — folk art, that is, untutored and not intended for sale.
An illustration by the ten-year-old Bouton of Monte Irvin
accompanies the piece, which is as much a vehicle for a few more amusing Bouton anecdotes as it is a plug for the show.
Hopefully, I'll have more to say on both Bouton's book -- which I've grabbed for some road reading (I'm headed to San Francisco and then Alaska starting on Tuesday, for about two weeks in all) -- and the museum exhibit when I return from my vacation.
• • •
Another photo accompanying Bouton's piece in the Times
is of a baseball intricately decorated
by George Sosnak, a now-deceased minor league umpire. Coincidentally enough, Jim Kaat made mention of Sosnak's talents for decorating balls on Saturday evening's broadcast of the Yankees-Mets nightcap
. Rookie pitcher Brandon Claussen, making his major-league debut, had just added to his stellar pitching performance by driving in an run with an infield single. The ball was retrieved and handed to Yankee trainer Gene Monahan, who regularly inscribes such milestone balls for the team. Kaat recounted some of his own notably inscribed balls, then mentioned Sosnak and his technique of applying India ink to illustrate the balls, even going so far as to add the game's box score.
At the bookstore today I was perusing the "The Perfect Game" exhibit catalog
and saw several beautiful examples of Sosnak's work from the exhibit. My first thought was, "I want one of these." But I'm not even going to bother lifting the couch cushions in search of loose change. A lot of 15 Sosnak-illustrated baseballs
recently went for around $10,000 on the Lelands auction site. Donations, anyone?
• • •
Back on the subject of baseball writers, one of the great ones, Leonard Koppett, passed away
last week. I referenced Koppett, in my work not too long ago
, and I've read several of his columns in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer
over the past couple of years. But I'm not familiar with a book that's considered his masterwork, The Thinking Fan's Guide to Baseball
. First published in 1967 as The Thinking Man's Guide to Baseball
, the book was revised a couple of times, most recently by the now-defunct Total Sports Publishing. The book has been widely praised as one of the best baseball books ever, so I'm aiming to remedy my ignorance of it by hunting down a copy (somewhere my girlfriend is rolling her eyes).
As I don't feel qualified to speak authoritatively on Koppett's career, I'll leave it to the eminently qualified Bruce Markusen, author and Manager of Program Presentations at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown. Writes Bruce
in his most recent "Cooperstown Confidential" column at Baseball Primer:
In addition to owning a sense of decency and modesty, Leonard Koppett was also that rare breed of old-time sportswriter who was willing to follow and appreciate the contemporary game. Unlike many writers who started their careers in the 1940s and fifties, Leonard didn’t believe that the players of yesteryear were any better than their counterparts today. Leonard often said that the baseball players of today were just as good, if not better, than the athletes that he covered in the 1950s. He also made a point of saying that we should all enjoy the baseball of today because these are baseball’s glory days.
Leonard possessed an unusual combination of writing—and thinking—skills. Like many of the old-time scribes, he had a flair for writing smoothly and a passion for the game. At the same time, he was one of the few establishment writers who showed a willingness to think about new ideas and philosophies. He was scientific and analytical in his approach, one who was eager to consider new interpretations of statistics. Leonard showed that it was possible to be both a traditionalist and a Sabermetrician, even those two titles might seem contradictory on the surface. If anything, he showed that it was absolutely logical and reasonable to be both traditional and Sabermetric, since that was preferable to being married to one singular, confining philosophy.
Markusen points out that when he met Koppett, he congratulated him on being elected to the writers' wing of the Hall of Fame. Koppett pointed out that his honor, receiving the J.G. Taylor Spink
for writing, was not the same as being elected
. That humility and willingness to educate those around him characterized Koppett for Markusen: "To this day, Leonard remains the only award-winning writer I’ve talked to who was willing to diminish his own accomplishments by emphasizing that he had not been elected to the Hall of Fame." A true thinker.
• • •
While we're on the subject of continued learning about the game, Retrosheet has unearthed and published a box score and detailed play-by-play (courtesy of Bob Tiemann) of The First Major League Game Ever
. On May 4, 1871, the National Association's Cleveland Forest Cities team visited the Fort Wayne (Indiana) Kekiongas. Bobby Mathews of Fort Wayne shut down Cleveland 2-0, the first of 297 wins he posted in the majors (the most of any pitcher not in the Hall of Fame). The two runs scored on a double by Bill Lennon and a single by Frank Sellman. Each team got four hits, but the Kekiongas were aided by three Deacon White passed balls, two of which led to their second run.
According to Mike Carminati
, who's done his homework, the 5'4" Mathews is one of only four players to have held the all-time record for career wins: Al Spalding (253), Mathews, Pud Galvin (364), and Cy Young (511), who ain't giving it up anytime soon. Baseball-Reference.com actually shows the year-by-year
progression of such all-time records, which is pretty cool.
It's common for baseball fans to say that they would be able to recognize the game 100 years from now; this box score is proof in the pudding from 132 years ago, even though baseball in those days was played under some different rules. Home plate was a square made of wrought iron, the home team could choose whether to bat first or second, the batter could call for his pitch, three balls consisted of a walk, and a balk required forfeiture of the ballgame. A researcher named Andy Singer who specializes in 19th century baseball compiled a detailed list
of the 1871 rules under which this game was played.
Ancient box scores are fascinating, but this one gives no insight as to just what the hell a Kekionga is. But a little resarch on the web has set me straight. Kekionga was a Native American village over which a bloody battle related to white encroachment was fought. Troops headed by Major General Arthur St. Clair were attacked by the Miami Confederacy, an alliance of Ohio Indians led by one Little Turtle
. The conflict has been called "The bloodiest battle of pioneer American history,"
and "The worst defeat in the history of the U.S. Army,"
among other things. Some 700 of St. Clair's people lost their lives, compared to only about 40 Indians.
It's probably for the best that no box scores remain from that one.