May 9, 2014

Gaylord Perry -- Hall of Fame 1991

Acquired: Private Signing 
Promoter: N/A
Signing Date: 4/12/14
Submittal: 50/50
My Request: Sweet spot, blue pen, HOF inscription
Commentary: Once again, the 1991 Hall of Fame class has proved to be very accessible for autographs. In fact, this was my first experience participating in a 50/50. For the unenlightened, a 50/50 is a form of a trade that plays out as follows: 

Step One
Person A sends Person B two items -- in this case the items are baseballs. 

Step Two
Person B keeps one baseball as compensation and returns the other ball to Person A after the ball has been autographed. 

As background, Gaylord Perry appeared last month at the Mickey Mantle Classic in Commerce, Oklahoma. As a guest, Perry did a signing then and there. Prior to the appearance, a reliable member on SCF made the trade arrangements with me. 

In a complicated world, a simple 50/50 is a thing of beauty. Transactions don't get any easier than this. I would welcome the opportunity to do more 50/50s, but I suspect they will be few and far between.

April 17, 2014

Red Schoendienst -- Hall of Fame 1989

Acquired: Private Signing
Promoter: Tom Orr
Signing Date: 4/8/14
Submittal: $35 check, ROMLB, SASE
My Request: Sweet spot, blue pen, HOF inscription
Commentary: I recently connected with Tom Orr for my first autographed ball obtained via private signing. I was pleased with that outcome -- an autographed Ozzie Smith ball. As a result, I utilized Orr once again for another Cardinal Hall of Famer, Red Schoendienst. 
Schoendienst is currently 91 years-old, yet his signature remains clean and not shaky. I have now obtained autographed balls from two members of the 1989 Hall of Fame class; first Johnny Bench and now Schoendienst. Yaz -- who is accessible but not cheap -- represents the final piece of the puzzle.

April 4, 2014

Book Review -- New Bill James Historical Abstract

Reading the New Bill James Historical Abstract from cover to cover was my New Year’s resolution for 2014. Growing up in the 1980s, I certainly read my fair share of Bill James. Until recently, however, I had never taken the plunge and endeavored to read every word of his 1,000 page masterpiece.

Now that I’m done, I feel more enriched by this Abstract than any other baseball book I have ever read. Page for page, nothing else compares. 

Since the Historical Abstract has been universally praised, I thought it would be more interesting to summarize its surprising qualities as well as its deficiencies.

Five deficiencies:
  • Baseball is half offense, half defense. Yet, among the positional rankings, 475 pages are devoted to hitters and only 75 pages are devoted to pitchers. Lumping starters and closers together could also be reevaluated.
  • The Abstract leans heavily on a statistic James devised called Win Shares. If you reject the methodology of Win Shares, you thus reject the premise of the rankings.
  • Bill James is from Kansas. Players who are from Kansas or who played for Kansas City get more ink than others do. References to Joe Tinker abound. And brace yourself for George Brett to be mentioned in the same breath as the legends.
  • There are some head-scratchers in the positional rankings in that the treatment seems uneven. Among catchers, James devoted 10 pages to Ernie Lombardi while Terry Steinbach got one sentence. At first base, Jeff Bagwell received a one word tribute -- “Pass”.
  • The author seems to take strange delight in calling players fat or racist. Sometimes both!

Five surprises:
  • I would not have anticipated that the Abstract is a treasure trove of baseball book recommendations.
  • At most positions, after the first 40 or so players ranked out of 100, the difference among them seems irrelevant.
  • Most positions are shockingly thin among the all-time rankings. Two examples: Even at a key position like center field, Ray Lankford clocks in at #49 all time. Juan Samuel, mostly thought of as a dud, is also a Top 100 player.
  • James freely acknowledges the quirks of his Win Shares system. This is very fair of him. I have never read a book with a tone so authoritative yet so modest.

The fifth surprising element is that there are dozens of terrific essays buried among the player rankings. For example, the passage about Ryne Sandberg essentially has nothing to do with the Hall of Fame second baseman. Meanwhile, the passage about Steve Sax is almost entirely about Ryne Sandberg. (Instead of discussing Sax in the Sax bio, James examines how likely a player with Sandberg’s rookie statistics will end up enshrined in Cooperstown.) The downside of this surprise-and-delight approach is that if you find an essay that you want to revisit at a later date, it’s almost impossible to ever find it again.

Some of the best entries include those for Willie Wilson, Ernie Lombardi, Dummy Hoy, Pete Rose and Steve Carlton. My favorite hitter and pitcher entries are Richie Ashburn’s and Tommy John’s.

Overall, the analysis is brilliant. Is there anyone else on the planet who has better dexterity than James with both words and numbers?

March 7, 2014

Ozzie Smith -- Hall of Fame 2002

Acquired: Private Signing
Promoter: Tom Orr
Signing Date: 3/1/14
Submittal: $50 check, ROMLB, SASE
My Request: Sweet spot, blue pen, HOF inscription
Commentary: This Ozzie Smith ball represents my first acquisition through a private signing. Prioritizing a modern Cardinals Hall of Famer might at first blush seem like a strange move for a Cubs fan like myself. But I harbor no ill-will towards Ozzie Smith. Above all -- I had a seven-year hole to fill in my project between 1997 and 2005. Overall, both the '97 inductees and the '05 inductees have signed for me TTM. The Hall of Famers in between, however, have not been as accessible for autographs.

February 22, 2014

Doug Harvey -- Hall of Fame 2010

Acquired: TTM
Sent: 2/3/14
Received: 2/21/14
Turnaround: 18 days
Submittal: $15 cash, ROMLB, SASE
My Request: Sweet spot, blue pen, HOF & "god" inscriptions
Commentary: With the addition of this baseball, I have now completed the 2010 Hall of Fame induction class -- Andre Dawson, Whitey Herzog and now former umpire Doug Harvey. In my LOR, I requested the double inscriptions along with his autograph. Got all three. I'm happy about that because I have always thought that "god" was one of the best nicknames in the game. For context, Doug Harvey is the only living umpire in Cooperstown. The induction of an ump is rare, but he was that good -- hence the nickname. 

February 21, 2014

Book Review -- The Bronx Zoo

The Bronx Zoo is a poor man’s Ball Four. The books share many attributes, yet the key difference is that Jim Bouton’s Ball Four is a much better memoir than Sparky Lyle’s Bronx Zoo.

Obligatory comparisons between Bronx Zoo and Ball Four are essentially unavoidable because of the abundant similarities: Both authors adopted a season-long diary format. Both authors were former New York Yankees relief pitchers. Both authors clung to less-than-ideal roles on their respective pitching staffs. In both cases, the books proved inflammatory and reached the New York Times best-seller list.

The best moments of The Bronx Zoo occur when Sparky Lyle neglects to pull his punches. In fact, in what seems like a calculated move, Lyle fires a huge shot over the bow on page one: “No one can blow his own horn like Jim Palmer can”. Later, in regards to Reggie Jackson:

Reggie has always said, “If Reggie Jackson doesn’t hit, the Yankees don’t win.” Well, no kidding. When he’s in the f---ing number four spot and he’s striking out all the time, that’s the truth...

In fact, my inspiration to read The Bronx Zoo came not from Ball Four, but instead from 2010’s Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball. In the latter, I took an almost strange delight in reading Bill Madden’s account of the dysfunctional, late 1970s Yankees. The next book I turned to was Bronx Zoo. At the end of it, I was left with a feeling of disappointment.

Overall, Bronx Zoo is an overrated memoir about Sparky Lyle losing his closer role over the course of the season. If the book succeeds, it’s because the subject matter -- Reggie, Billy and George -- is so rich. Looking back, it turns out that Lyle was the superior pitcher and Bouton was the superior author.

Favorite Line
Ted Williams was a coach there, and it was he who changed my life. He watched me pitch one afternoon, and afterward he asked me what I thought was the best pitch in baseball. I told him I didn’t know. “The slider. You know why?” I said no. He said, “Because it was the only pitch I couldn’t hit consistently even when I knew it was coming.” I was in awe of Williams.

February 2, 2014

Book Review -- Summer of '49

The sports media’s fawning over the rivalry between the Yankees and Red Sox has never been much of a pet peeve of mine. For whatever reason, all the uneven adulation heaped upon those two franchises does not bother me the way it bothers so many other people.

As even-tempered as I am about the subject matter, I nevertheless found it difficult to enjoy David Halberstam’s Summer of ‘49.

My first problem is the premise. Halberstam was not a baseball man, yet his opinionated book was published in 1989, forty years after the events it describes took place. Given the revisionist nature of old ballplayers and old managers, I question the stories and stats that the author presents as fact.

My second problem with the book is the author’s questionable analysis. A perfect example is Halberstam’s take the Red Sox’s shortstop controversy. Regarding Boston’s two options at short -- Johnny Pesky and Junior Stephens -- Halberstam writes that:

"At this most critical position, Boston was deficient. Junior Stephens played adequate shortstop, although in no sense was he one...Pesky had played shortstop before the trade, but McCarthy had moved him to third because he had better hands and was quicker."

As the great baseball writer Bill James has pointed out, “This is an amazing interpretation of the transaction. Nobody in the history of baseball was ever moved off of shortstop because he had good hands and quick feet.”

Yet another problem with the book -- the third and final issue that I will note -- is that Summer in ‘49 feels more like hero-worship than journalism. Rather than de-mistify Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, the author seems to actively contribute to building up the mystique.

Summer of ‘49 sometimes appears on lists of the top ten baseball books of all time, however, I didn’t care much for it. I formed my own opinion independent of others, and it’s felt very reaffirming to read other writers later discredit the book, too. In lieu of Summer in ‘49, James refers his readers to Robert Creamer’s Baseball in ‘41 instead.

Favorite Line:
Williams would never, no matter what the situation, go for a pitch that was even a shade outside the strike zone. DiMaggio was different: He believed that, as a power hitter on the team, he sometimes had an obligation to swing at imperfect pitches. On certain occasions a walk was not enough; it was a victory for the pitcher.