Why We Love Baseball / Wall Street Journal Book Review


Well-known member

Ben Yagoda

Oct. 5, 2023 6:44 pm ET



Roberto Clemente of the Pittsburgh Pirates races to first base during the 1971 World Series against the Baltimore Orioles. PHOTO: FOCUS ON SPORT/GETTY IMAGES

The book is a follow-up to Mr. Posnanski’s “The Baseball 100,” a personal ranking of the game’s all-time great players, that was highly praised for its smart-fan sensibility, countdown-list format and relaxed style. The relaxation extends to the accuracy of the subtitle of his latest book, which promises 50 moments but expands under the weight of Mr. Posnanski’s digressions, footnotes and lists within lists.

“In all,” he explains, “there are 108 moments and memories. Even that number is magical. There are 108 stitches on one side of a baseball. The Cubs’ World Series drought lasted 108 years. Some physicists did a study and determined that Nolan Ryan threw the fastest pitch ever recorded at 108 mph. The Big Red Machine—the 1975 Reds—is, I believe, the greatest team of them all. They won 108 games.”

Mr. Posnanski is a bit like the guy telling baseball stories at a bar—if that guy is clever, funny, not averse to hyperbole, sentiment or numerology, willing to go to great lengths to track down a fact and possessed of a way with words. He says that Cleveland’s massive Municipal Stadium was “a mausoleum that smelled of stale beer and broken dreams” and “was strategically constructed to place steel beams in front of every fan in the ballpark.” He observes that a ball thrown by Roberto Clemente in the 1971 World Series left his hand at 98.6 mph, traveled 295 feet from right field, and “jumped up to the catcher, like a child greeting a parent returning home from work.”

Recounting Game 6 of the 1975 World Series between the Red Sox and Reds—“the best game ever played”—he points out that Carlton Fisk’s celebrated 12th-inning home run (Moment No. 17) was set up by Bernie Carbo’s pinch-hit, three-run shot to tie the game in the eighth. And “that home run—like Nikola Tesla, the Nicholas Brothers, Antonio Meucci, and Sybil Ludington—should be so much more famous.”

The book has lesser-known stories as well as famous ones. Moment No. 45 is what Mr. Posnanski terms “the greatest trick play in baseball history.” It was an elaborate deception perpetrated by the University of Miami against Wichita State in the 1982 College World Series.

The ploy involved the pitcher faking a throw to first base to hold the runner, the first baseman running toward the bullpen to convince the runner that the throw had errantly gone down the first-base line, and their teammates in the dugout yelling that it was rolling away. The runner broke for second, only to be easily thrown out by the pitcher, who had the ball in his glove the whole time.

The Miami batgirls (nicknamed the SugarCanes) were seemingly fooled as well, but to this day, it is debated whether they were in on the ruse.

My favorite entry is Moment No. 32, Sandy Koufax’s perfect game against the Chicago Cubs in September 1965. Mr. Posnanski revisits the radio call of the ninth inning made by the broadcasting legend Vin Scully. The author prints this in its entirety, jumping in with occasional analysis in the manner of a literary scholar performing a close reading of a Keats sonnet. And make no mistake, the Scully call is poetry.

Listen to what he told his legion of listeners when the count was 0-2 to the first Cubs batter up in the ninth, Chris Krug: “Koufax lifted his cap, ran his fingers through his black hair, then pulled the cap back down, fussing at the bill. Krug must feel it, too, as he backs out, heaves a sigh, took off his helmet, put it back on, and steps back up to the plate.

]The narration paints a picture in words, something no one could do better than Scully. Two things in particular stand out for me. The first is the way Scully goes back and forth between the past tense and the (customary) present. It creates a tension that bespeaks the gravity of the moment. The second is the word “fussing,” which no other announcer would think of using, and which is perfect.

Mr. Posnanski nimbly pivots from the sublime to the silly. Before chronicling a great catch made in 1909 on a ball hit by Dots Miller of the Pittsburgh Pirates, he digresses:

They called him Dots for the most wonderful of reasons. Earlier in the year a reporter asked the Pirates’ great star Honus Wagner who the new kid was playing second base.

“Oh,” Wagner said, “that’s Miller.”
But in his thick [German] accent, it sounded like “Dot’s Miller.”

The word “we” in Mr. Posnanski’s title does a good deal of work. Not everybody loves baseball and I imagine the minutiae and panegyrics herein will be boring or puzzling to those who don’t. But if you were that kid who felt a surge of gladness when Baseball Digest turned up in the mailbox, and if the game has continued to hold a place in your heart, well, I’ve got just the book for you.