“The Baseball 100” by Joe Posnanski. Introduction by George F. Will. New York: Avid Reader Press (Simon & Schuster), 2021. 869 pages, $ 40 (hardcover).
Joe Posnanski has published six previous books, including “Paterno” and “The Secret of Golf”. He has been named National Sports Writer of the Year and has won two Emmy Awards. In “The Baseball 100”, he selects the 100 best players in baseball history and writes a chapter that summarizes the player’s career and explains why each one deserves to be included. Readers may question why a particular favorite player is ranked too high or too low, but the numbers are not that important. For example, Joe DiMaggio is ranked No. 56, but the author explains: “I have never considered putting him anywhere else. Joe DiMaggio’s legendary strikeout was 56 games. Joe DiMaggio, in my mind, is 56. ”This kind of thinking may offend some readers, but most will find all 100 chapters well written and interesting regardless of what ranking each one gets. Although each reader will have special favorite teams and individual players, baseball fans love to talk baseball and can enjoy reading about any player. Posnanski quotes Roy Campanella as saying, “You have to be a man to play this game to live.” “But you have to have a lot of little boys in you too.” Campy was so right!
There are many humorous stories in this book. When discussing Campanella’s early career, the author says that Campy started in the Negro leagues at the age of 15 and that Phillies tried to sign him. This was 20 years before the Phillies played against a black player. Posnanski explains that the Phillies persecuted him when they saw his name was Campanella because they thought he was Italian. Although his father was Sicilian, his mother was black and Phillie’s interest suddenly faded. In the Reggie Jackson chapter, I liked Catfish Hunter’s comment about the candy bar named after Jackson: “When you unpack a Reggie bar, it tells you how good it is.”
The author also provides insight into the differences between Japanese and American baseball. In Japan, where baseball is seen as a discipline and art form that requires unyielding work, each workout lasts six or seven hours. When a former Royals manager became coach there, he thought he was doing the players a favor by cutting down on the exhausting training sessions, but the players disliked this change. Posnanski says: “They wanted to work past exhaustion. … It was an honor to push oneself beyond one’s physical limits and disgrace by doing less than one’s best. ”
When the author discusses Phil Niekro’s bone ball, the author quotes Bob Uecker as saying: “The right way to catch a bone ball is to wait until it stops rolling and then pick it up.” Posnanski says Ferguson Jenkins was one of only four pitchers to hit more than 3,000 hits in his career while going below 1,000. The other three are Curt Schilling, Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez. What sets Fergie’s era apart from the other three, however, is that from 1967 to 1972, Jenkins completed 20, 20, 23, 24, 30 and 23 games. In the current era, a pitcher can lead the league with just three complete games. However, I was surprised to read that there were no Triple Crown winners (leading league in batting averages, home runs and innings) between Carl Yastrzemskis in 1967 and Miguel Cabreras in 2012. A gap of 45 years is quite long for something like occurred with much greater frequency earlier in the 20th century.
Many of the 100 players had stories of growing up with a father who drove them to succeed in baseball. The relationship with the fathers varied, but many began to throw stones and continued for years with long training sessions on throws and fields. When an agent offered to sign Niekro for a $ 500 signing bonus, his father said, “I’m sorry. I work in the coal mines. We just do not have that kind of money. ” The author discusses the search for valuable beginner cards and also sees changing trends throughout baseball history when pitchers or hiters gain prominent place for a period of time. He believes Robin Roberts was underestimated because he played the lead role in a period (1950s) when the focus of the game was on position players such as Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Henry Aaron, Duke Snider, Frank Robinson, Al Kaline and Roberto Clemente. From the 1960s to the 1970s, pitchers including Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Don Drysdale, Denny McClain, Nolan Ryan, Niekro and Gaylord Perry dominated. In the 1980s, the batsmen were once again baseball heroes, and in the 1990s it was the pitchers again, despite the many batting records that were broken in that decade.
There are many stories that show how times have changed for baseball players over decades. For example, in 1956, Al Kaline was awarded a contract with a $ 3,000 increase over his $ 15,000 salary after finishing second and third in the last two MVP races. Mickey Mantle earned $ 60,000 so Kaline returned the contract unsigned. Tiger President Briggs publicly humiliated Kaline, and when Kaline gave in and signed Tiger fans, Mr. Tiger bowed heartily when he appeared on the plate. While discussing Mike Piazza, the author notes that Piazza will remain the lowest drafted player ever to make the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. He finished 1390th overall in the 62nd round in 1988, and the draft process is no longer so many rounds. When discussing the peculiarities of Nolan Ryan’s career, Posnanski points out that Ryan put seven no-hitters, while Sandy Koufax is in second place with four, and that Ryan knocked out 5,714 players while Randy Johnson is in second place with 4,875, and that he also holds the record for the fewest hits per nine innings, but Ryan also holds all-time records for most times, stolen bases allowed and errors.
The Houston Astros’ 2017 scam scandal was still in the news during the final post-season, but Posnanski cites various examples of players stealing signals in the 1890s and early 1900s. A particularly cheeky guy at Phillies used binoculars to steal the catcher’s signal and pressed a button that would trigger a buzzer attached to his third base trainer’s legs. The coach would then pass on the signal orally. This worked very well to begin with, but when they were revealed, the Phillies’ average shot dropped 35 points over the next two years.
Posnanski believes Wade Boggs was one of the most overlooked players to ever play the game. After reading Ted Williams’ book, The Science of Hitting, Boggs focused on getting hits, just getting on base and never swinging on the wrong track, instead of on home runs. Boggs was superstitious about precise timing before a match. He sat down at his locker exactly at 3:30, took ground balls at 4:17, stroke training at 5:17 and sprint before the game at 7:17. The author says that Jays manager Bobby Cox let the scoreboard operator in Toronto “make the clock jump from 7:16 to 7:18 just to mess with Boggs”.
I was surprised to hear that the Dodgers first approached Monte Irvin when he returned from World War II in 1943 to leave the Negro leagues and break the color line, but he declined the offer. I knew that Hank Greenberg was the first Jewish baseball star, but not that he had unleashed a fuss about playing ball during the Jewish holidays in 1934, thus predicting the Koufax controversy decades later.
Near the end of the book, the author reveals that many of the rankings correspond to a player’s uniform number, a year in which the player excelled, or an achievement, such as DiMaggio’s 56 matches. However, he still claims that he can defend the position on that ranking. Posnanski’s top four players include Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds, but I would leave it up to the readers to haggle with each other about the specific ranking. “The Baseball 100” is a fantastic collection of stories about baseball’s best players that most readers will find hard to put down. There are several typographical errors, but I doubt most readers will be too distracted by it. I highly recommend the book as a wonderful gift to any baseball fan who still has a spark of the little boy (or little girl) inside that brings back many memories every time the game is discussed. Every time I sat down to read it, I felt the excitement that I remember as a young boy opening up a new pack of baseball cards.
– Reviewed by Richard Weigel, WKU History Department.