By Allen Barra
BASEBALL touches more literary bases—fiction, folklore, oral history, statistics—than any other sport. The new season commences this week, and here's a scorecard on the best new titles of 2008.
Ty Cobb Safe at Home, by Don Rhodes (The Lyons Press, 195 pages, $15.95) Ty Cobb won a record 12 batting titles, slashed infielders with sharpened spikes and once bragged about killing a mugger with a penknife. He was a racist and at least a borderline psychotic. He was also, it turns out, a startlingly complex man, the first professional athlete to become wealthy through business investments (Coca-Cola) and a man who cared deeply enough about his community to help fund the Cobb Memorial Hospital in Royston, Ga. (which evolved in time into the Ty Cobb Healthcare System). Don Rhodes of the popular "Ramblin' Rhodes" syndicated music columns may be the first man ever to make Cobb appear human—which is not to say normal. Safe at Home is the best book to date about baseball's strangest and most extreme personality.
Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends: The Truth, The Lies, and Everything Else, by Rob Neyer (Simon & Schuster, 331 pages, $16) ESPN.com's Rob Neyer could take certified public accounting and mine it for great bathroom reading, but no one's going to leave his Big Book of Baseball Legends in the bathroom. Neyer has collected every baseball story you've ever heard (and a few you haven't) and dug into their origins. In the process, whether affirming or debunking, he invariably comes up with facts even more interesting than the legends. Billy Martin did bench Reggie Jackson in the 1977 playoffs, but the outcome suggests that Martin wasn't picking on Reggie but playing an educated hunch; comic actor Danny Kaye did not pinch hit for Lou Gehrig to keep his consecutive-games streak alive (and the story did not originate with Humphrey Bogart); Dizzy Dean did not force John McGraw to quit his managing career.
Baseball Prospectus 2008, edited by Steven Goldman and Christina Kahrl (Plume Books, 605 pages, $21.95) There's a mistaken impression out there that the bright boys and girls who compile the Prospectus are stat nerds. In fact, they are all fans and excellent writers who use stats to make their points. Some projections for 2008: "The Baltimore Orioles are as likely as 5-inch floppy discs to make a comeback in 2008." "The New York Mets ... will suffer more disappointment in 2008, only this year it will start on Opening Day." And, most painfully for local fans, "With a little bit of luck and a lot of patience, the Giants can become a robust and competitive baseball team again, instead of a one-man traveling circus." BP 2008 is a great read no matter who your team is. Starting the season without it is like starting a hot dog without mustard.
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