The word "skeptical" barely begins to describe my demeanor as I was asked to review John Rosengren 's new book, Hammerin' Hank, George Almighty and the Say Hey Kid.
First of all, I'd never heard of its author, so how good could the book be, right? Well, I'd never heard of Michael Shapiro before I read his excellent book on the Brooklyn Dodgers a few years ago. Before I happened upon A Dirty Job in the Allentown airport last summer, I'd never heard of Christopher Moore either, and he's now my favorite author. So I didn't give that particular prejudice too much weight.
More important, the book's subtitle " The Year That Changed Baseball Forever " kind of put me on my guard. And not just because it referred to 1973, and therefore happened before I was born. I had to take the title with a grain of salt, mostly because I just read a book last year about a team that (allegedly) changed baseball, just two years before this book supposedly did the same thing, and that, frankly that was a crock. And a really boring book.
Rosengren's book is neither.
This well-written, insightful and intriguing tome relates how the events of the 1973 baseball season, and several events that unfolded around it, really did change the game, and perhaps the country, for all time. Think about it:
- You had Hank Aaron chasing babe Ruth, right down to the last day of the season, contending not only with his aging body and racist death threats, but also the ambivalence of the baseball establishment (read: Commissioner Bowie Kuhn) and the people of Atlanta, who mostly ignored him right to the end.
- Willie Mays, the once great Giants centerfielder, was linping along in his last year as a player with the Mets, who somehow managed to get to the World Series despite winning only 82 regular season games.
- Reggie Jackson was trying single-handedly to not just win the AL pennant again, but to become the superstar that we all now know him to be, and while he was at it, he was also trying to change the way players dealt with both management and the media. He succeeded at all three.
- Charlie Finley was an odd juxtaposition of both progressive and traditional baseball values. For example, he lobbied for the Designated Hitter rule, which was accepted, as a way to improve offense levels in the attandance-challenged American League. He also suggested orange baseballs for night games, though these were only used in exhibitions. At the same time, he was a world-class cheapskate, losing his players' loyalty (and ins ome cases their contracts) over comparitively trifling sums because he simply could not stand to give up a dollar if he didn't absolutely have to.
- George Steinbrenner bought the New York Yankees for a song from CBS, and despite promises to keep building ships for a living, it was not long before he started meddling...and winning.
At the same time, America was still trying to get out of the Vietnam War, and the Paris Peace Accords were signed, though it would not be the end. By the end of the year, both the President and the Vice President were forced from office over separate political scandals, though Nixon made significant inroads with both China and the Soviet Union, helped to start the DEA, the Alaska Pipeline, and signed the Endangered Species Act, before he was forced to leave.
The World Trade Center, the CN Tower in Toronto and the Sears Tower in Chicago, the Bosporous Bridge in Istanbul and the Sydney Opera House all opened. The SkyLab launches mark the next step in manned space flight and exploration. Thalidomide settlement. The Stockholm Syndrome. The American Indian Movement standoff at Wounded Knee. Roe v. Wade. The Yom Kippur War. The Arab Oil Embargo.
Tie a Yellow Ribbon was the biggest selling single of the year. Elvis: Aloha From Hawaii was seen by over one billion people, and they didn't even have YouTube. Dark Side of the Moon was released. The Miami Dolphins became the first (and still, only) team in NFL history to finish a season undefeated. Secretariat won the Triple Crown. O.J. rushed for over 2,000 yards. Bobby Riggs and his big mouth were beaten (easily) by Billie-Jean King. Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!
It was a tumultuous time, you have to admit. And I hadn't even been born yet!
To his credit, Rosengren doesn't try to cover all of that stuff in his book, but he does touch on some of the bigger issues (like Watergate) and how the baseball world could never be wholly insulated from the larger culture. Steinbrenner's illegal campaign contributions to Nixon in 1972 were given special attention in the book,as was the effect of the investigation, and his eventual conviction, on his business with the Yankees). Rosengren also discusses the ways in which Steinbrenner almost immediately renegs on his promise to practice "absentee ownership" and "stick to building ships", and apparently had no shame about the way he wanted to run things. When Mike Burke, the general Manager of the team under CBS's ownership, was forced out, George simply explained that, "[he] didn't agree with everything I wanted to do, so I fired him." (p. 82)
Speaking of contentious and controversial owners, the Oakland Athletics, despite their success in 1972, were a wild bunch, and hated their cheapskate owner. "They disregarded authority with exhuberant contempt." (p. 29) Moreover, they nearly mutinied during the World Series when Finley's meddling forced secondbaseman Mike Andrews to agree to a false medical report in order to get someone else on the roster. Finley eventually forced out his manager, Dick Williams, lost his best pitcher, Catfish Hunter, and the AL MVP Reggie Jackson, once free agency took hold.
Finley's brainchild, the DH, was proposed essentially as a gimmick to improve attendance, which, it was though, would increase with increased offense. The American League in 1972 had averaged just 3.47 runs per game, 13% lower than the Senior Circuit, and almost exactly as low as the anemic 1968 season. Run scoring (and attendance) increased dramatically in 1973, and everyone was so pleased after only the first season of what was supposed to have been a three-year experiment, they decided to make the DH permanent. Hard to blame them.
With that said, I do have to take issue with Rosengren's contention that, "The experiment had improved offense, no question." Offense improved, sure, but how much did the DH have to do with it? Plenty, but not everything. The AL scored 4.28 runs per team per game in 1972, a 25% increase from the previous year, but only about half of that was due to the DH. The rest of it was due to the fact that the League as a whole just hit much better, and much more in line with historical trends. Designated hitters scored 0.58 runs per game in 1973, compared to only 0.14 runs per game by pitchers and pinch hitters in 1972, but everyone else in the American League jumped from a paltry 3.17 R/G up to a much more palateable 3.56 R/G. In short, it looks in retrospect like 1972's pitcher's paradise was just a fluke, which would likely have reverted to the mean anyway, at least to some degree.
Anyway, I'm off-topic. Back to the book.
Rosengren manages to relate some of the social and historical implications of the DH, the ways it was perceived and who actually embraced the role and succeeded at it. Ron Blomberg may have gotten his name in the record books as the first player to serve in the role, But Orlando Cepeda was the one who made the DH look like a good idea. Cha Cha was basically washed up at 35, but got a second chance in Boston in 1973 due entirely to the DH rule, and probably owes his Hall of Fame induction to it. (Rosengren mentions that Cepeda won the inaugural Outstanding DH Award in '73, though he fails to include the fact that Frank Robinson had a much better season. Baby Bull only got the award because it was started by a newspaper in New Hampshire, which is obviously in Red Sox Nation.)
The book, in fact, is really quite good. The author seems to be one of those select few people who can look at an array of information from various and sundry sources and not only see the big picture, but relate it to others as well. It seems that a lot of things really did change in 1973, and Rosengren weaves all the intricate parts of that season together for you, presenting the tapestry and explaining how it all fits, and what it all means.
How he managed to do this is beyond me. His bibliography lists over 50 different books, plus numerous websites, periodicals, audio/video sources and more than a dozen personal interviews with players and other personalities who lived the events in the book. And talk about meticulous! After the brief first chapter, every chapter has at least 29 end notes, and most have at least 60! The man obviously paid enormous attention to detail, working his butt off to verify and cite his sources.
The result is an interesting, well-researched, well-written and comprehensive work that tells the tale of a season that really did change the world of baseball forever.