With Opening Day just around the corner, there is no better time to dig into a new batch of baseball books to help celebrate the new season. This spring provides a number of strong books for baseball fans. It is all about the traditional turning of a page, literature and national pastime, so here is a look at some of the most recent fare worth a read:
Pinstripe Empire by Marty Appel, 597 pgs. (Bloomsbury)
When Frank Graham wrote the "definitive" history of the New York Yankees way back in 1943, the Bronx Bombers already had won 10 World Series titles -- matching the total of any other franchise to date until the Cardinals won No. 11 last year. That is another way to put the Yankees' success into perspective, besides saying 27 titles.
It also gives you an idea of how hard it would be for one author to declare himself or herself now as the purveyor of the "definitive" history of the Yankees in 2012. How could you possibly be that comprehensive and authoritative, in light of all that has happened since then (Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, the Bronx Zoo, Reggie Jackson and Don Mattingly, and the revitalization behind Joe Torre, Derek Jeter and other superstars)? And how could you do that without producing a "War and Peace" freighter that no one would lug around?
No book since Graham's has successfully taken the mantel of "definitive" for this franchise, but it appears we finally have a taker. Appel knows the stories; he handled Mickey Mantle's fan mail as his first gig; became the Yankees' PR director in the 1970s; saw firsthand how The Boss imposed such discipline in 1973 as having Yankee Stadium graffiti painted over every morning to "outlast them"; authored many books including The New York Times bestseller "Munson"; and is a New Yorker. He is the person you would want to compile all of this, and he has done so with aplomb in a relatively svelte 597 pages, literally covering it all from before George Herman Ruth to after George Steinbrenner -- even including George Costanza (page 203).
Here's the best thing about "Pinstripe Empire." It doesn't matter where you start or finish. On page 245, you will find out that in 1946, many Yankees uniforms were typically handed down after a season from the regulars to Minor Leaguers. "We never gave a thought to taking home uniforms after the season," Yogi Berra would recall. "What would we need them for?" They would stitch Newark or other affiliates' names on the same jersey that Joe DiMaggio had worn. One of many true stories of baseball's most legendary franchise.
The Rotation: A Season with the Phillies and One of the Greatest Pitching Staffs Ever Assembled by Jim Salisbury and Todd Zolecki, 255 pgs. (Running Press).
After Cliff Lee led the Rangers into their first of consecutive World Series in 2010, Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. had a chance to sign him as a free agent and create one of the best rotations in modern history. Amaro told Lee's agent, Darek Braunecker, that it "could cost me my job," to which Braunecker replied: "You do this deal and go on to win two, three world championships over the next few years, they're going to build a statue of you next to Rocky."
Construction on the statue is not under way. The Phillies made a surprisingly early first-round exit against the eventual world champion Cardinals last fall, but what a ride it was, with Lee joining Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt for one pitching advantage after another. MLB.com Phillies reporter Zolecki joins with fellow Philly scribe Salisbury for a whirlwind, behind-the-scenes account of the foursome's 2011 daily reality, featuring extensive interviews and tracing of each starter's roots to the present.
Even without Oswalt, The Rotation is still back and the main reason Philadelphia is widely expected to again contend for a World Series. A sequel could be very much in the mix, but that might depend on whether putting up that statue ever becomes necessary.
Guaranteed to Last: L.L. Bean's Century of Outfitting America by Jim Gorman, 224 pages. (Melcher Media)
Just as the Red Sox are about to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park, another New England staple, Maine-based L.L. Bean, celebrates its own centennial with a beautiful coffee-table book that shows what a unique place baseball (especially the local team) has had in its little-seen archives. A Ted Williams swagger-heavy offer letter to the Bean founder is reprinted, dated Nov. 9, 1960:
"As you know, my career as an active ball player is over and it is now my intention to devote more time to my fishing tackle business ... I would appreciate your advising me if you would be interested in merging with Ted Williams, Inc. or, if not, would you consider the outright sale of your company and if so, on what terms."
"Guaranteed to Last" traces the company's defining products and chronicles the brand's most important incidents and innovations. It also reveals Bean's connection to a few of baseball's most unforgettable players, which you also can see on page 69: a rare photo of Babe Ruth, once a Red Sox and then the reason for sport's greatest rivalry, wearing a pair of Bean Boots with a rifle in his left hand and a pheasant in the other.
Driving Mr. Yogi by Harvey Araton, 224 pgs. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Every Spring Training, Ron Guidry arrives at the Tampa airport to pick up Yogi Berra, then drives him to the ballpark where they watch aspiring Bombers, then they eat and tell stories and do it again. It is not a subject the private Guidry ever wanted to publicize, but Araton wrote a New York Times 1A piece about it last year and Guidry, finding out that the Hall of Famer was OK with it, allowed Araton to turn it into a 70,000 word book.
"You watch that relationship and the way Gator is with Yogi, and you're proud," Yankees manager Joe Girardi says in the book. "Everybody appreciates having Yogi in Spring Training, but when you see those two together, the reverence and respect they have, you just get a sense of pride. It's really just like watching a father and a son."
Araton shares stories that are often funny, revealing and surprising. Like Frog Legs Night. It's not just that Berra always looks forward to his Cajun buddy showing up with about 200 frog legs from Lafayette, La., but it's also the way Berra would badger him about it over the winter: "Did you get the frog legs yet?" That's how "Yog" would make sure his "driver" was going to get him at the airport for another Spring Training, without actually asking him.
Guidry, pinstripe royalty himself, says Berra is "the most loved man in America." It might not be far from the truth. After reading this book, you feel like you know Berra a little more than you did before, a little grumpier and demanding then you may have expected, but you feel fulfilled because anything that brings new Yogi Berra stories is a good book, whether you're a Yankees fan or not.
The Baseball Hall of Shame: The Best of Blooperstown by Bruce Nash and Allan Zullo, 279 pgs. (Lyons Press).
They're back and no one is safe. Not Ruth, Mantle, Hank Aaron, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Stargell, Dizzy Dean, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Kirk Gibson, Ken Griffey Jr., David Ortiz, Pete Rose, Rickey Henderson, George Brett, Burleigh Grimes or Cap Anson. Not even poor Jeffrey Maier, the fan who thought he once achieved glory but merely made it into the new edition of the Baseball Hall of Shame.
Just as bloopers are a celebrated fact of life in the national pastime, where an error is a key element, there is room for even more inductions by the authors who celebrate their zany book's 20th anniversary. And in case you were wondering, it's not even a catch-up to include performance-enhancing abuse over an era. It is more fun than that (see: Manny using the Green Monster john during a game), a true blooperfest and comedic look at the sport we love.
"Everyone makes mistakes, even Major Leaguers," Nash writes. "The only difference is, when a ballplayer screws up, it's in front of tens of thousands of fans."
MLB.com also has separately reviewed Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey's outstanding debut book, "Wherever I Wind Up," a candid and inspiring look at his long and arduous path from a tough childhood through baseball obstacles to key starting pitcher.