New Books By and About the Boys of Summer

By Stuart Mitchner

The freshest, most appealing baseball books of the summer look to be I’m Keith Hernandez (Little Brown $28) and The Comic Book Story of Baseball (Ten Speed Press $18.99), with words by Alex Irvine, and graphics by Marvel artists Tomm Coker and C.P. Smith.

I grew up in post-war southern Indiana loving baseball. The nearest major league team was the Cincinnati Reds. About 250 miles to the north were Chicago and the Cubs and White Sox. St. Louis and the Cardinals were about the same distance to the west. I still remember Cubs broadcaster Bert Wilson exulting, “It’s a beau-t-iful day for a ballgame!” But I was never a Cubs fan, nor did the Reds ever mean much to me.

The Cardinals have always been my team. Along with the poetry I instinctively responded to in the name St. Louis, there was the visual poetry of the two cardinals sitting on the slanted branch of a golden bat. I didn’t think of it as “poetry” then but what else can you call a name and an image that retain the same primal appeal for me today that they did when I was 6? Add to these essentials the fact that Stan Musial, one of the most charismatic players of all time, played for the Cardinals, and here I am, looking forward to Keith Hernandez’s new book because it promises to tell the story of the all-star first baseman’s days in the Cardinal organization. 

While I’m Keith Hernandez will have a special appeal in the New York area because he played for the 1986 World Champion Mets and has been a fixture in the Mets broadcast booth with Gary Cohen and Ron Darling, he’s still a hero in St. Louis, where he had a Most Valuable Player season in 1979 and was a key member of the 1982 World Champions.

Unlike most broadcast booth sidekicks, Hernandez is a guy on a first-name basis with the world whose 15-year-old Bengal cat Hadji is the star of a twitter feed that tracks his loving owner’s movements through the day. As he says in his preface, Hernandez finds most books about baseball players boring, comparing them to paint-by-number exercises, and though he doesn’t say it, the by-numbers business is usually being done by a ghost writer. This book is all his, in contrast to Pure Baseball and Shea Goodbye, which were written with the help of professional writers. Echoing Sinatra, he says, “I want to write this my way.”

He begins with an anecdote from his San Francisco childhood about how his father would bring home fresh-from-the-bakery sourdough bread, “still warm, soft on the inside with a crust that made your teeth work just the right amount. I want to make this book something like that. Something that you set your teeth into and say, ‘Keith, that’s pretty good. More, please.’”

Keith is also the only player I know of who can compare his approach to writing about and playing baseball with appearing onSeinfeld. In fact, his title comes from a to-kiss-or-not-to-kiss episode with Julia Louis-Dreyfus where she’s wondering “Who is this guy?” and he’s thinking “I’m Keith Hernandez!” When they were filming the scene, Keith found that the script was “really just a starting place” and that everything could change “once the ensemble’s creative juices were flowing.” It’s the “inventiveness and spontaneity” that reminds him of baseball, “where you’re forced to improvise almost constantly.”

Baseball Comics

The graphics in The Comic Book Story of Baseball, subtitled The Heroes, Hustlers, and History-Making Swings (and Misses) of America’s National Pastime, evokes a kind of baseball innocence I associate with the childhood days of comic books and sports magazines. I don’t remember which newspaper it was, but I used to see cartoons of great baseball moments like Ty Cobb sliding into second base spikes high or Babe Ruth pointing to the spot where he hit a homerun, illustrated in the book as one of the myths of baseball (“Babe’s Called Shot”). Library Journal makes note of Marvel comics veterans Coker and Smith’s “powerful graphics, tinted lightly with color for a marvelous vintage effect.”

Former major-leaguer Dirk Hayhurst, author of The Bullpen Gospel and commentator for ESPN and TBS, says “baseball history should always be presented in comic book form” and considers The Comic Book Story of Baseball “probably the most accessible history of the game I’ve ever held in my hands.”

Scrapbook Days

The cover photos on I’m Keith Hernandez and Red Sox slugger David Ortiz’s memoir Papi: My Story (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt $28) remind me of growing up as a subscriber to Sport magazine, which I treasured for the full-page color portraits of the players that I would clip out and paste into scrapbooks right above my carefully printed leaky ballpoint career batting or pitching stats. As devoted as I was to the Cardinals (for them I made separate scrapbooks), I valued all the players in both leagues, and reveled in the glory of the numbers. It still amazes me that someone who was a total loss when it came to math could be so smitten with the numerical beauty of RBIs, home runs, and batting averages.

And of course the most romantic number of them all was Babe Ruth’s immortal 60. It’s amusing to read in Glenn Stout’s The Selling of the Babe(St. Martin’s Press $27.99) of the era when “the home run was viewed with suspicion, such an irregularity that it was considered pure folly to hope for one”; it was “the baseball equivalent of a Hail Mary pass in football today; a wonderful surprise when it happens, but hardly worth counting on.” So it was that the Red Sox traded a 20-game-winning pitcher with a gift for the occasional “wonderful surprise” to the Yankees and were doomed to live under the Curse of the Bambino until the 2004 team finally brought a World Championship to Boston, a feat lived and recounted by David Ortiz in Papi, which was written with Michael Holley, and according to the Washington Post offers “the unpolished reflections of one of the few ballplayers to redefine a club.”

Curses

The tale of the team that outdid the Red Sox for World-Series deprivation is told in Rich Cohen’s The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse (Farrar Straus and Giroux $26), which, speaking of curses, includes Cubs manager Lee Elia’s famous soliloquy on the f-word. Player/manager Lou Piniella, another baseball great with a gift for expletives, has a new book out: Lou: Fifty Years of Kicking Dirt, Playing Hard, and Winning Big in the Sweet Spot of Baseball (Harper $27.99), with Bill Madden, “a Hall of Fame book about a baseball life, nicely framing four great decades of the national pastime” says Boston Globe writer Dan Shaughnessy. 

Finally, my title gives me an excuse to mention Roger Kahn’s 1972 classic about the Brooklyn Dodgers, The Boys of Summer.It’s too soon to know whether I’m Keith Hernandez will attain the status of a classic, but early reviews seem close to what he was hoping for when he cited the fresh-baked sourdough bread of his boyhood: ‘”Keith, that’s pretty good. More, please.” Gay Talese says “Even when he is writing about his slumps, his book is a hit.” George F. Will calls him “the thinking person’s ballplayer,” and Sports Illustrated finds his book “Poignant and unexpectedly literary.”