I recently read Craig Nova’s outstanding memoir, Brook Trout and the Writing Life, an eloquently sparse plea to meditation that might be one of the most inspirational books I’ve ever read. It urged patience in life and writing, two endeavors where that quality can be at a premium, especially when in front of a computer screen. When I started writing my review, I sounded like I was wearing a Navajo print shirt and selling crystals. Nova’s sentences were finely crafted jewels, and I couldn’t do them justice without entering a self-help haze.
Knowing a lost cause when I saw one, I decided instead to write about receiving a Kindle. Then I conducted an interview with Paul Shirley. Now, over a month has passed, and I’ve reviewed nothing. This is getting scary. If I don’t get my stroke back, I’m prone to having my analysis devolve into tweets. Or I could become the book reviewer’s answer to Andy Rooney, an even more frightening prospect.
What's the critic’s answer to batting practice or a trip to the driving range? Capsule reviews. Here are three.
Major League Baseball Profiles: 1871 to 1900 (Vol. 1 and 2), compiled and edited by David Nemec
Originally, I thought these books were a compilation of old magazine profiles, so I thought that I could compare sportswriting then and now.
Instead, a giant package arrived in the mail with two books featuring stats and biographical sketches of hundreds of players from that long-ago era. I typically don’t review reference books because they take too damn long. Plus, what do I review? But Nemec’s books are wonderful—eminently skimmable, well written, and jam-packed with minutiae that baseball geeks will love. Plus, it’s great to see so many older players remembered this way, instead of being honored via agate type.
I can see these books becoming as invaluable a resource to me as The Baseball Encyclopedia—something that will entertain and inform me for the rest of my life.
Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend, by James. S. Hirsch
I’m a little skeptical of biographies that are “officially authorized” by the subject or his or her estate. If someone wanted to write about my life, there’s stuff I want excised, like my brief infatuation with Debbie Gibson or the period of time when I thought billowy sweatpants was an acceptable fashion choice. As a writer, knowing that you’re beholden to the subject would also affect the writing and reporting process. Authors driven by a thirst to know, not approval, write the best biographies.
Hirsch’s (authorized) biography on the mercurial baseball legend certainly puts Mays’s career in perspective and does explain his thorny personal side—he loves kids because, unlike adults, they don’t betray you. But for a man who is arguably the greatest living ballplayer, the book doesn’t feel epic enough. It’s a fun, informative read that doesn’t allow for the full figure of Mays to shine through.
The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood, by Jane Leavy
The last two years have seen bookstores besieged by athlete biographies. Aside from Mays, there have been ones on Hank Aaron, Stan Musial, Walter Payton, even Evel Knievel, all written by wonderful writers.
Out of the books I've read so far, Leavy’s masterful work of the doomed Yankees’ slugger is the best. The veteran author (Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy) accomplishes what Hirsch couldn’t: she defines her subject as a player and as a person, sparing no detail in the process. She uncovers the truth about Mantle’s legendary 1953 tape-measure home run against the Senators (even tracking down the kid who retrieved the ball), examining just how bad his knees were, and tracing the Mick’s long tumble into alcoholism.
The last part is heartbreaking. In order to get closer to their distant father, Mantle’s kids drank with the man, becoming alcoholics in the process. Mantle’s reputation as an aw-shucks bullshitter—a reputation that he lived on—kept him from facing reality. By then, it was too late. The Last Boy is an epic book that explores the tragedy that occurs when someone stops becoming a person and fully submits to being a personality.
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Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, AMC Filmcritic.com, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and The Weekender, and maintains a movie blog. A longtime Mets fan, Pete currently lives in Bucks County, PA, which is Phillies territory. Pray for him. Contact Pete.