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A Bitter Cup of Coffee: How MLB and the Players Association Threw 874 Retirees a Curve – by Douglas J. Gladstone

A Bitter Cup of Coffee - by Douglas J. GladstoneBaseball is often synonymous with large salaries, multi-million contracts given to men for being able to play the game most of us at least dabbled in as children.

Yet those with knowledge of the game’s history know that these large sums of money being given to players came about relatively recently, after the reserve clause was done away and players won the right to be free agencies in December 1975. But not everyone who puts on a Major League uniform cashes checks with an abundance of zeroes, but more importantly, not every one of them gets to participate in one of MLB’s most lucrative benefits – a pension program. Thanks to omissions in previous editions of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, 874 players find themselves left out of that pool of money, and that is a grave injustice that Douglas J. Gladstone tackles in his book A Bitter Cup of Coffee: How MLB and the Players Association Threw 874 retirees a Curve.

What makes this book special is that it tackles a current, relevant and unfortunately not widely known about topic and gives the reader a very detailed look at it, albeit with the tone of advocacy journalism, which Gladstone readily acknowledges but doesn’t let it get in the way of making a book worth reading. It’s not a romantic book – if anything, it is a near tragedy that will leave a bitter taste in your mouth after you see baseball players and the teams turning their backs on their fellow players.

Gladstone assembles what seems to be his own 40-man roster of former players and executives to ultimately tell the story of how and why this group of players found themselves on the outside looking in. It can be tough to keep everyone straight at times, but that is a minor detail in what is otherwise a very good read.

If you are interested in baseball beyond what happens on the field, and in particular the business of baseball and how it relates to its former employees, this is a wonderful book that provides an eye-opening look behind the curtain of baseball’s labor negotiations and who has been left behind in the name of labor relations progress.

The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macorís – by Mark Kurlansky

Other than the United States, no country has produced more Major League Baseball players than the Dominican Republic — 495 according to Baseball-Almanac.com, over twice as many as Venezuela’s 247 who is next on the list. Certainly, one must wonder what it is about this small country in the Caribbean that produces so much talent?

While this would be an easy approach to take, in The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macoris, author Mark Kurlansky turns the question around and looks at what baseball has done to one town in particular, San Pedro de Macoris, a fishing town on the southeastern coast of the Dominican Republic that has produced 79 of those 495 big leaguers, in hopes of showing how just how baseball has affected a town that in turn has produced some of the game’s best players.

To say that this is simply a baseball book would be selling it short — and would likely disappoint certain readers who go into it expecting nothing but baseball stories. Baseball is certainly a part of it – and a substantial part at that when you consider how much money baseball players from the town have earned and brought back to infuse into their city, as well as the baseball academies and related jobs that have come about because of a mix of situations. Add in that while the specific origins of baseball in the Dominican Republic are uncertain, there have been links to games played in the late 1800s, and you have a decent history from which to draw.

Of course, baseball is readily present, and the names of players who have made it to the Major Leagues from San Pedro de Macoris are plentiful – Alfonso Soriano, Robinson Canó, Sammy Sosa, Tony Fernandez, Rico Carty, Luis Castillo, George Bell, Joaquin Andujar…the list goes on and on. Each has different stories and struggles – some were heralded as stars early on, while others had to fight for attention and take a longer path to the Major Leagues.

What unifies all of them as Kurlansky points out in his introductory chapter is their shared desire of “making it,” and thus escaping the laborious work of the sugar cane fields or the fishing boats. These players all start out as young boys with improvised equipment such as milk cartons for gloves, balls of socks for baseballs and sugar cane reeds or broom handles for bats, who somehow through a mix of hard work, good fortune and talent make it off the island and into the ranks of professional baseball, with the most elite among them donning one of 30 Major League uniforms.

Mark Kurlansky (Photo by Sylvia Plachy)

These dreams are not without their risks however – a bad break in the form of an injury or a bad day at a tryout can cost them potentially millions of dollars, and return them to a life of poverty, often dragging their families along with them.

But what makes the book shine is the context in which Kurlansky introduces you to these players. He is quick to point out the differences between the Dominican Republic and its Caribbean neighbors – even down to the name of the country, that when compared to Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba and others, leaves much to be desired. The Dominican Republic is a nation that has been invaded time and time again over the last 500 years, twice by Spain, three times by Haiti, twice by France, and twice by the United States, as well as by corporations and as Kurlansky so eloquently shows us – by Major League Baseball and its teams in hopes of finding a future talent at a very affordable price.

The Dominican Republic has also been the receiving land of immigrants from throughout the Caribbean who have come seeking work in the sugar cane fields or in a factory – and the resulting multiculturalism has not been without its share of discrimination, prejudice and forced acceptance and change.

It was also a major beneficiary of the United States’ embargo against Cuba, as teams had to look elsewhere to find talent that they could bring stateside without the headache and heartbreak that came along with trying to get a Cuban out of the now-closed country. That benefit is still seen some fifty years later, as more and more kids from the Dominican Republic enter the ranks of Major League Baseball each year.

Which takes the reader back to the players — the early ones who suffered discrimination just like the Negro Leaguers and African-Americans throughout the middle part of the 1900s because of the color of their skin, let alone a language barrier that often separated them from their new world. The cultural differences about how the game was played and life was lived that branded them as hot-headed brawlers who had little use for manners or decorum, only to be proven wrong by players like Alfredo Griffin who made a name for himself as a peacemaker and leader who had the ability to hold teams together.

The Eastern Stars surprised me by how wide-ranging the topics covered were — while I expected to learn about the players who came from San Pedro de Macoris, I also learned more about the sugar industry, fishing and cultural struggles than I expected. It is that wider lens that Kurlansky uses to capture his subject that makes this book a winner and the reader and baseball fan who can watch his or her favorite Dominican-born players with a new appreciation that much better.

The T206 Collection: The Players and Their Stories — by Tom Zappala and Ellen Zappala

For those with an interest in baseball cards, the T206 series of baseball cards is one of the most well-known sets ever to be produced. Loaded with Hall of Famers, marked by brilliant portraits of players and elevated by over 100 years since their debut.

Many fans, even those outside of the world of baseball card collecting, are familiar with the crown jewel of the set, the 1906 T206 Honus Wagner. In 2007, Michael O’Keeffe and Teri Thompson put out a book titled simply, The Card, which looked at the history of the most well-known card from this set, and possibly the most well-known sports card of all. With its combination of scarcity and a portrait of one of the game’s greatest players, it has recently fetched just under $3 million at auction.

But what about the rest of the set? What about those other players who had their image printed onto these little pieces of paper and inserted into packs of cigarettes? They now have a book dedicated just to them – The T206 Collection: The Players and Their Stories, by Tom Zappala and Ellen Zappala.

If you’ve ever collected baseball cards, you’re familiar with the index card – the card that you dreaded getting in packs because all it did was list the other cards in the set and was designed to be a checklist for which cards you had and which you didn’t. Think of this book as an index card for the T206 collection, but with a hardcover and loads of brilliant photographs of the cards and baseball equipment from the early 1900s, as well as brief biographies of each of the players featured in the set.

Tom Zappala

Tom Zappala

The book starts out strong, featuring the 38 players who would end up going into the Hall of Fame from this set. Some of the game’s great names live in this chapter, like Cobb, Young, Mathewson, the Big Train, and many others. These are the jewels of the set – where name recognition is frequent and on-field accomplishments are plentiful.

The “could be, should be” Hall of Famers highlight chapter two, as the authors select 12 players featured on T206 cards who have on-field credentials that could, or in some cases should warrant admission into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Chapters three through six look at the lesser known players — divided up as “The Uncommons,” “The Bad Boys of Baseball,” “The Minor Leaguers” and “The Commons.” Each of the players featured in these chapters, as well as the preceding chapters, gets a short biography to accompany photos of the cards he appeared on, as well as list of the Major League teams he played for. While a bit short at times, I could certainly see this book becoming the inspiration for a reader to further investigate players of this era, as the authors give the reader just enough to give you an idea of who the player was, what he was known for, and leave you wanting to know more about many of them.

The book is wrapped up by an informative chapter written by Joe Orlando, president of PSA – Professional Sports Authenticator and PSA/DNA Authentication Services, as well as the editor of the Sports Market Report, titled “Understanding the Value Within the T206 Set.”

To my knowledge there is no other book on the market that gives this set of baseball cards the kind of treatment that the Zappalas and Orlando do, and it is a welcomed addition to the library of baseball knowledge. Few sets truly deserve this kind of attention – the 1933 Goudey and 1952 Topps being two that would – and the authors do it a great service and bring to light the rest of the set beyond the Wagner card.

If anything, layout of the chapters is my main gripe with the book — the authors chose to list players alphabetically, which unfortunately ignored some of the more natural connections that exist between players in the set. For instance, in the Hall of Famers section, the heralded double play combination of Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance of the Chicago Cubs would seem a natural trio to feature together, yet they are separated by several pages.

Ellen Zappala

Ellen Zappala

Chapter three, which has the most promise as it looks at players from the era who were known for being “a little bit different,” as the authors eloquently put it, was weighed down simply by the length of the chapter – at 68 pages, it became a bit fatiguing to sift through all the players mentioned. Had it been broken down into two or three smaller chapters, the great stories would have had an easier time standing out – such as reading about the real Bull Durham, or meeting the man with the lowest on-base percentage with a minimum 5000 at-bats.

The standout of the book, at least from an informational standpoint, was the final chapter, penned by Orlando. As a professional who understands the factors that go into making certain cards more valuable than others, he breaks down the intricacies of the T206 set and gives the reader a feel for what factors had to come together to make the T206 such an appealing set and why it lives on as one of the greatest card sets of all time. It’s Orlando’s ability to explain the nuances of the set to the reader that adds context and to the pictures and biographies in the earlier chapters.

If you’re a fan of baseball cards but can’t manage a purchase of the entire T206 set, this book proves to be a worthy substitute, as it puts the 524-card set into a hardcover book worthy of placement on your coffee table that not only shows you the cards but will introduce you to the players whose images graced the set. There are some non-Hall of Famer names in this book you’ll likely recognize but likely many more you won’t, making this a great way to explore turn-of-the-century baseball and see connections to today’s game both on and off the field as well as through collectible pictures of ballplayers.

You can read more about this book and the authors at T206Players.com.

Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend — by James S. Hirsch

Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend -- by James S. HirschWe’re all familiar with the idea of being in the right place at the right time, but that concept leaves out an important factor — being the right person, in the right place, at the right time.

To say that Willie Mays exemplifies the concept of being the right person in the right place at the right time would be a gross understatement, and in his recent authorized biography of Willie Mays, author James S. Hirsch goes into never-seen-before detail as to just what launched Willie Mays into the stratosphere of baseball history.

As Hirsch notes in the prologue, Mays “has long been an enigma who spoons out just enough biographical morsels to nourish (fans’) curiosity but not satisfy their appetite.” For someone such as myself who hasn’t followed Mays’s life all that closely, that seems about right. While he doesn’t stay completely out of the public eye, for someone of his stature in the game of baseball he certainly isn’t at the forefront of many off-the-field discussions.

Taking on the task of bringing the complete story of Willie Mays was no small task as Hirsch reminds the reader, and his treatment of his subject is admirable and complete, at least to the reader who doesn’t have additional information. I’m sure some of Mays’s teammates and longtime friends could add pages of stories and anecdotes if they were given the chance. However, speculation on how many pages this book could reach if more cooks were allowed in the kitchen is not the point of this review.

Hirsch manages to keep a fairly level tone and sense of excitement throughout the book, which left a tinge of disappointment with me at the conclusion of the book. Mays’s life had some clear points that were defining both on a personal and professional level, and while they are discussed fairly thoroughly, Hirsch didn’t seem to take the brakes off and give the reader the full tilt of emotion that was I had to think was present at the time. His attempt to purchase a home in San Francisco, while detailed poignantly, felt like it was missing something, as did the sections that covered the response to Mays’s lack of desire to get involved in race relations the way his contemporaries were. While I respect Hirsch’s ability to keep the train from running off the tracks, I wouldn’t have complained about hearing the wheels grind and feeling the car sway a bit more.

There is no way to avoid mentioning that the book weighs in at a relatively hefty 560 or so pages, depending whether you read the acknowledgments or not. Some will say this is nothing, some will say this is a beast of a book — I tend to skew towards the latter, especially in this age of sound bites and Tweets. However, Hirsch never seems to waste a page in telling Mays’s story. He keeps the chapters at a length that in turn keep the book moving and keep the reader’s attention focused on the topic. Thankfully he went with 36 chapters, as opposed to opting for 24 and trying to draw a connection to the number Mays wore on his back throughout his career.

For fans of one of – if not the greatest to play the game of baseball, this book is an invaluable read that will pique your interest and show you sides of Mays that you have likely never seen before. The things that he doesn’t talk about in interviews come up in this book, and while neither scandalous nor overly salacious, they are poignant and important in understanding this legend of baseball.

The Game From Where I Stand: A Ballplayer’s Inside View — by Doug Glanville

Anytime a ballplayer’s memoir arrives in my mailbox, I am immediately suspect and weary of what the pages might contain. Self-praise, guarded secrets, and often an over-hyped book that fails to live up to the marketer’s promises.

Such is not the case with Doug Glanville‘s debut book, The Game From Where I Stand: A Ballplayer’s Inside View.

Fortunately, the hype machine did not reach me before the book did – the good folks at Henry Holt and Company managed to slip this one in my mailbox without much fanfare, which I believe was a smart move on their part, as it allowed my to dive into it without any preconceived notion of just how great or scandalous it might be.

Glanville, a veteran of nine seasons in the big leagues, brings a remarkably understated amount of insight to his book, which is a refreshing thing in this era of Tweeted scandals and sound bites dominating the nightly news. He does not speak with the trepidation of someone who needs to be wary of offending Hall of Fame voters, nor does he write with the rampant disregard of former players who are seeking attention, one Mr. Jose Canseco being a prime example. Rather, he knows that setting every bridge he has ever crossed on fire will do him no good, yet guarding every sacred secret in the game is no path to post-baseball success.

The book ended up being split into two distinct parts for me — the first six chapters, which cover Glanville’s playing career, and the following five chapters in which he allows his intellectual and insightful side to emerge as he reflects on life after baseball and casts a critical yet tempered eye on the state of baseball today.

The difference between the first six chapters and the latter five is remarkable — Glanville’s pragmatism in the first half about choosing gloves and the recognition that comes with being a professional athlete in the first half takes on a much deeper tone in the second, as illustrated in his trip to buy a luxury car and his commentary on the struggles that pain athletes once the jersey has been ‘ripped from their backs.’

Glanville comments on a number of topics in the second half, from promiscuity on the road to steroids, as well as the way athletes are treated because of their job and the wake-up call that is finding life after baseball, and addresses all of them with an insight that is surprisingly deep. The University of Pennsylvania graduate and occasional columnist for the New York Times shows an ability to provide fair criticism without overstepping his bounds, thus providing the reader a look at the game of baseball that I have rarely seen. This isn’t the talking head kind of commentary that is seen on television, nor is it the soapbox pontificating that is heard on radio or the salacious say-it-first-prove-it-later commentary often found on blogs; rather this is insight from a credible source who has the ability to communicate in well thought out, coherent sentences.

This is one of the better baseball memoirs that I have had the pleasure of reading, and I would encourage you to take a chance on it as well. While the first half of the book may leave you wondering why you picked up the book, the second half will quickly answer that question and leave you wanting to hear more from Mr. Glanville, something that I hope we are able to do for quite some time.

Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball – by George F. Will

Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball - by George F. WillIt was twenty years ago that the public pool of baseball knowledge saw a 48-year-old journalist from Washington, D.C. do a perfect 10 dive off the high board and forever enrich the collective consciousness of baseball.

With his seminal book Men at Work, George F. Will gave baseball fans a chance to see inside the game through the eyes of three of baseball’s best players and one of its best managers of the late 1980s: Orel Hershiser, Tony Gwynn, Cal Ripken, Jr., and Tony LaRussa.

Twenty years since its initial release and widespread acclaim, the book is being re-released with a new introduction by Will, in which he touches on many of the things that have transpired in baseball since 1990 – the steroid scandal, discussions about how the game has slowed down to a miserable crawl, and the continued economic changes the game must address, to name a few. While impressive, it seemed to lose its luster by the time I got to the end of the book – a point I will touch on later.

As for the book itself, it remains untouched, appearing just as it did when it debuted in 1990. Will recruits the previously mentioned foursome to take him into the world of baseball, for as he often explained it in interviews, the book he wanted to read about baseball simply didn’t exist, so he decided to write it. With Hershisher as his guide for pitching, Gwynn for hitting, Ripken for defense and LaRussa for managing, as well as a strong roster of other players, coaches and broadcasters, Will shatters the perpetual notion that baseball is slow and dull, by showing the myriad of situational possibilities that a player and manager must consider and address on each and every pitch.

Men at Work remains today the same hard, honest look at the copious amount of labor that goes into being skilled at the craft of baseball. Yes, there is a romantic side to the game, as Will, like the majority of his readers, will never truly understand and appreciate the combination of work, luck, talent and good circumstance that results in a player ending up on a Major League field, let alone in a record book or enshrined in the Hall of Fame. In fact, I often think many players don’t appreciate the equation that must occur to produce a big league career, but that is another topic for another time.

Will is not shy to admit that baseball is a glorious game, but he is just as forthcoming with the many pitfalls that players and managers must avoid in order to be great at it – and it is those pitfalls that seem to create the chasm that separates fans from players and results in what I occasionally see as boorish behavior by fans at baseball games. He reminds us that the game looks easy from the stands because those who are on the field make it look that way. For the common man, to stand in the batters box against Tim Lincecum, or have a ball hit to our right at shortstop and have to make the throw across the diamond would allow us to see the game in a completely different and more appreciative light.

What amazes me is that with Men at Work so readily available to the baseball fan for 20 years, there appears to be so many people that haven’t read it. I’ve never done a formal poll as to this, but after reading this book, it seems impossible that one could be an obnoxious, boorish fan. That’s not to say that you can’t be passionate, or even vocal at times when something doesn’t go your way, much like you would at the office or at home. But anything beyond showing signs appreciative support for a hard and hopefully productive day at the office seem beyond me.

Having grown up a baseball fan but not being blessed with the talent to play it well let alone the opportunity to even try, I have attempted to understand the game as best as possible instead. That is the reason for this site, as well as BaseballOnMyBrain.com, and why I go to and watch as many games as I can, hoping to chip away at the granite slab that is baseball knowledge. As Will reminds the reader throughout the book, this is best done with a small chisel as opposed to a massive sledgehammer. It takes time, patience and practice to become just moderately well-versed in the game, and even at that point one should not refer to them self as any kind of an expert. Not once in the book does Will hit you with a sledgehammer of insight or opinion, but rather offers up a steady stream of bite size pieces of fact, insight and opinion from those who get to work between the white lines.

Make no mistake – Men at Work is a heavy book, laden with ideas to digest and process. But for any one with an interest in baseball, it is something you really must read and think about if you want to develop in your knowledge and appreciation for the game.

As mentioned earlier, while there is gold in the new introduction to the book, it seems that the real mine of opportunity for Mr. Will to further educate the baseball world lie in the opportunity to rewrite the Conclusion, titled “Maybe the Players Are Livelier.” In the introduction, he already names the four subjects who would comprise the cast of Men at Work 2.0 should it ever come about: Tim Lincecum, Albert Pujols, Chase Utley and Mike Scioscia. To see that he has already pondered the thought is exciting, although the more I thought about it, the more I began to realize that in many ways, a second version isn’t really needed. The only thing I would really like to see, and Will admitted he left out during an April 2010 interview on MLB Network, was a section on the catcher. If you’ve followed my writing you know I have a strong bias for catchers, and once again, they get left out of the story, just like Paul Revere’s horse gets left out of that great tale.

What makes Men at Work so incredibly valuable to baseball fans is that 20 years later, it’s almost impossible to tell that it wasn’t recently written. While LaRussa is still managing, all three players have retired, records have changed and stadiums have come and gone, but the core lessons and insights about the game are just as relevant now as they were then. There were numerous times I forgot that I reading about baseball in the late 1980s, because while the names may change, the fundamentals of the game do not. There were power hitters back then as there are now, as well as singles hitters, base stealers, hard throwing pitchers and junk ballers, and every other characteristic you could label onto a player.

With a list price of just $14.99, there is no reason this book shouldn’t be read by any and every man, woman and child who labels themselves a baseball fan. You will certainly end up a more informed fan who will be able to go to the ball park or turn on the TV and see the game of baseball in a more educated and appreciative way.