03/03/2008 12:18 PM ET
A 'Change Up' to the baseball narrative
New book distills modern era to eight key milestones
By Doug Miller / MLB.com
Larry Burke and Peter Thomas Fornatale detail America's pastime in "Change Up: An Oral History of 8 Key Events that Shaped Modern Baseball." (courtesy Rodale Books)
When Larry Burke and Peter Thomas Fornatale set out to put together the fascinating new book, "Change Up: An Oral History of 8 Key Events that Shaped Modern Baseball," they looked to Lawrence S. Ritter for inspiration.
Ritter had pioneered the form in sportswriting with his 1966 book, "The Glory of Their Times," in which he compiled first-hand accounts of baseball from early-era players such as Rube Marquard, Babe Herman, Stan Coveleski, Smoky Joe Wood, and Wahoo Sam Crawford.
"We thought it would be really interesting and useful and a very cool thing to do to go and do the same sort of thing, but post-World War II," says Burke, a senior editor at Sports Illustrated.
"Ritter's mission was really to capture history from the guys who lived it before it was too late. He was not a guy who wanted to just do a book and make money. It was quite the opposite, actually. He gave the money to the players who were the interview subjects."
Burke and Fornatale weren't about to go do that -- "I don't think Jeter and A-Rod need a contribution from me," Burke cracks -- but "Change Up" (Rodale Books, 304 pages), which comes out March 4, was written in the same spirit.
In the course of about three years, they rounded up about 100 interviews with players, experts and related observers of the game and let these insiders' stories and recollections speak for themselves. The result is a compelling collection of hand-picked events in baseball history that represent major milestones even if they haven't always been publicized in that light.
For example, the first chapter chronicles one of the worst teams ever, the 1962 New York Mets, for what they did for expansion.
Another chapter honors the Jim Bouton book "Ball Four" for what the authors consider to be its historically underappreciated relevance in courageously revealing the previously unseen and unheard-of inside-the-clubhouse dirt for the casual fan.
But there's a lot more, including the rise of Latino players, the hiring of Frank Robinson as the first black manager, the first designated hitter (Ron Blomberg), Cal Ripken Jr.'s record consecutive-games-played streak and Ichiro Suzuki's arrival in America -- which ushered in an Asian explosion throughout the game.
And then there's the one chapter Burke says he and Fornatale are particularly proud of for its enormous ramifications on the business side of baseball.
It's the one about the birth of the players' union, and it features extensive commentary from Marvin Miller, the now-90-year-old former executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1966-1982 who is credited with making the union as strong as it is today.
"Marvin Miller is such a fascinating guy," Burke says. "The chance to sit down with him and hear from the guy who was so central to such a pivotal era in the game, about changing everything about labor relations to player salaries and all that, it was very interesting, and I think it made for one of the stronger chapters."
One of the beautiful things about baseball is that it inspires constant discussion and arguments across eras. Burke and Fornatale were steered into those waters when needing to come up with their top eight events.
"We had a list," Burke says. "I couldn't even tell you how many were on the original list. It was a lot. We sat down over a period of weeks and months and kept adding the ideas and possibilities. And once that list had grown and we felt like we kind of had everything that we could conceive of, we decided on what was the most interesting to us and what fit together.
"We had to look at it as ultimately what we could deliver on as far as a story and characters in the story, and we also had to look at it as what we had to be fresh on."
Access to the right subjects dictated some of the stories, too, and Burke says the reactions to the project differed.
"Sometimes it would be amazing," Burke says. "A guy you'd think would have an attitude or you wouldn't be surprised if he did, a Hall of Fame player like a Frank Robinson or Cal Ripken, you might be trepidacious in approaching. And then you get to them and the guy could not be more cooperative or gracious. That certainly was the case with those two men.
"And conversely, you might have a guy much less well-known or accomplished as a player who is either impossible to find or completely difficult when you get him. You hang up the phone and think, 'Wow, that was bizarre.'"
In the end, the book does a good job honoring the tradition and spirit of writers like Ritter by allowing the voices of the people who experienced these watermark events to tell it to future generations, thereby preserving it forever. And, of course, doing it for nothing more than the joy of discovery.
"Like Ritter, we're a couple of writers who really are not in it for the money, either," Burke says.
"We're really huge baseball fans and we really got jazzed by the idea of capturing history."
Doug Miller is a Senior Writer for MLB.com/Entertainment. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.