The book: “A Game of Inches: The Story Behind the Innovations that Shaped Baseball”
The author: Peter Morris
The vital stats: Ivan R. Dee publishing, 626 pages, $26.95 (paperback)
The pitch: When the first two volumes of this came out in 2006, earning the Seymour Medal and The Casey Award as the best baseball books of the year, improvement on them seemed to be a distant thought. But this reprint comes with the cover recommendations by ESPN’s Rob Neyer (“The one that every serious baseball fan must have) and Keith Olbermann (“An astronishingly well-researched history of the evolution of almost every facet of the game. You will be amazed at the amount of accepted knowledge that Morris disproves.”)
We’re sold. Even if it’s a re-issued text, knowing that it was revised and expanded made it a no-brainer for our knowledge-seeking mind. Morris also wanted the two editions condensed for easier use, add a topical index to make referencing things aside from people more useful and update research that had happened over the last three years. He himself found new material in writing the 2008 “But Didn’t We Have Fun: An Informal History of Baseball’s Pioneer Era, 1843-1870” (linked here) and 2009’s “Catcher: How the Man Behind the Plate Became an American Folk Hero” (linked here) since then.
Focused more on the why and how rather than the who and what, Morris has actually opened himself up to publishing upgraded versions every few years — perhaps this will inspire other historians to either backup or try to disprove his material.
He also makes it clear that this isn’t supposed to be “a book of baseball firsts, (which) could be endlessly long . . . the object of this book (is not) to capture such minutiae. . . . I’m (more) interested in the origins of the batting crouch, but not in determining the first left-handed hitter to crouch. (Also) baseball already has many record books, and this book is not intended to poach on their territory.”
Among our favorite entries:
== 26.2.5: High Fives. Glenn Burke is believed to have invented the highfive while playing for the Dodgers in the late 1970s. (The other day was actually dubbed High Five Day by …somebody).
== 26.3.2: Reports that Baseball is Dead: When baseball experienced its first great rush of popularity between 1865 and 1867, there was a wide-spread feeling that “baseball fever” was simply a fad that would soon abate. Accordingly, when the game struggled in 1868 and 1869, many journalists prematurely pronounced the game dead. It was far from the last time.
== As the Dodgers were trying to figure out if Jeanne Zelasko had a place in women’s play-by-play broadcasting history when she was assigned games on the Internet last season, entry 20.2.13 notes that as early as 1938, golfer Helen Dettweiler was hired by General Mills as a goodwill embassador who’d go city to city and brodcast local games and had “succeeded in breaking down that barrier,” (reported The Sporting News). In 1964, Charles O. Finley had Betty Caywood do his Kansas City A’s games. In 1976, Anita Martini, a Houston sportswriter, did Astros games. Mary Shane was given a shot at being doing Chicago White Sox play-by-play in 1977, but she was phased out after 35 home games. Said then-White Sox broadcaster Jimmy Piersall: “She never had a chance . . . because of all the in-bred prejudice against women covering a baseball team.” Curiously, the entry doesn’t even mention Suzyn Waldman, a New York Yankees broadcaster on WCBS-AM radio since 2005, becoming the first woman to hold a full-time position as a Major League broadcaster.
== In a story of African-American announcers: In 1965, Jackie Robinson was unveiled by Roone Arledge as one of three “interpretative” commentators who would work the regional telecasts of ABC’s Game of the Week.
== Chapter 19 covers 17 “versions” of baseball, including Over the LIne, on roller skates, Water Baseball, Wiffle Ball, Two Swings, Donkey Baseball and Old-fashion.
== Curiously, there’s only one paragraph on the subject of steroids, a subject that has filled hundreds of pages of recent books. Referenced 2.4.6, the steroids entry says: “The first ballplayer to admit to having taken illegal steroids ws the late Ken Caminiti, in a Sports Illustrated article published in June 2002. Caminiti acknowledged that steroids helped him win the National League MVP award in 1996. Of course Caminiti wasn’t the first to take illegal steroids, and other players, most notably Mark McGwire, have acknowledged taking products such as androstenedione, which were not prohibited by baseball at the time.”
How it goes down in the scorebook: As for calling it a “Game of Inches,” this one is only an inch and a quarter thick. Smaller type and a paperback cover helps. But only 11 pages of bibiography? The authors of those books, newspaper stories and magazine articles should have a badge of honor knowing Morris referenced them. When we are looking for a quick reference and can’t decide what to Google — or are away from the nasty computer — this provides more than just a doorstop to find an obscure reference to a shortstop.