The book: “The Baseball: Stunts, Scandals and Secrets Beneath the Stiches”
The author: Zach Hample
The vital stats: Anchor Books/Random House, 356 pages, $14.95.
The pitch: There is something intrinsically magical about simply holding a baseball in your hand. Whether it’s the rows of stitches, the stretched pieces of leather or the company name stamped on it. Or, of course, that new-ball smell.
Hample, who hooked us a couple years back with his “Watching Baseball Smarter: A Professional Fan’s Guide for Beginners, Semi-experts, and Deeply Serious Geeks ” book, has taken that assault on the senses to new heights.
His claim to fame is having hauled in more than 4,600 balls in his “career,” from nearly 50 ballparks. He’s got them all logged on his website (linked here), up to the day. Fact is, he has a business called “Watch With Zack,” where he’ll personally take you to a game and guarantee them at least one ball to take home. (Kinda like paying to going to a private pond overstocked with trout, but kids still get a kick out of it by landing one).
So when he decides to dedicate his next took to all there is to know about a simple baseball — why not?
His research is pretty impressive, for starters. Go back to 1905, when a Cubs fan named Samuel Scott was arrested after catching a foul ball but refusing to hand it to an usher. The team president signed a larceny complaint against him. The charges were dropped with Scott threatened to sue for assault and false arrest. Eventually, Cubs owner Charles Weeghman allowed foul balls to be kept. In 1916. It was lauded in Baseball magazine as a “common-sense policy,” even if other owners refused to go along with it.
Flash ahead to today, when fans in Wrigley Field’s bleachers started the tradition of throwing back a visiting team’s home-run ball. Or, at least throwing “a” ball back, whether it’s the original homer or not.
Hample is able to chronicle this baseball thing from every angle imaginable, starting with how it became a souvenir craze, a pop-culture hook, a vechile for stunts — even how it has led to some unusual deaths (incuding 14-year-old Dodgers fan Alan Fish at Dodger Stadium in 1970, who remains the only MLB spectator fatality). But even Hample even manages to put a light spin on that chapter, with a notation at one point saying: “No, this is not a story about Yankees second baseman Chuck Knoblauch, who hit Keith Olbermann’s mother in the face with a bad throw in 2006. She survived.”
The last third of his book is a how-to guide on getting your own baseball. From how to position yourself near an aisle to getting early to the park for batting practice and finding the “Easter eggs” that were deposited before the entrance gates were opened, to watching tendencies of batters … stuff you knew you didn’t even know, but should have picked up by now just from paying attention. He even gets into a bit how Dodgers fan Mike Mahan once bought up the right field pavillion at Dodger Stadium during Barry Bonds’ pursuit of No. 700 for his career in 2004 (a story that we actually wrote first).
Admittedly, our favorite section is about how baseballs — especially foul balls — have made themselves storylines in movies and sit-coms over the years. Hample takes the time to critique the authenticity, which we can appreciate.
Such as in the 1986 movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” on page 68:
“Although Bueller’s dorky fist pumps (and attire) belie the athleticism required to make a bare-handed catch in a crowded section of presumably rowdy Cubs fans, the scene is very realistic. It begins as the dozens of extras react to the ball entering the stands — an obvious detail that often gets overlooked — and continues with Bueller’s snag. First he experiences the rush of obtaining the souvenir. Then, after a few seconds, the pain sets in as he shakes his left hand. Upon closer inspection, his friend Sloane can be seen ducking with her right hand over her head, while his best friend Cameron quickly looks to the side as if he’s trying to see who ended up with the ball. The only flaw is that when the TV camera follows the initial flight of the ball, two relief pitchers can be seen warming up along the left-field foul line, but when the field is then shown from Bueller’s prespective, the bullpen mound is mysteriously empty. That said, writer-director John Hughes expertly blended actual game footage with his own attention to detail in the stands.”
Hample’s attention to detail is even better. Although Baseball Prospectus does some real research into the scene and pinpoints it from a Cubs-Braves game in 1985 (linked here).
One more example: Hample cites a day in 2009 at Dodger Stadium when Vin Scully remarked: “Nice catch by a fan directly behind the dugout.” Turns out, it was Jermaine Jackson, of the Jackson 5, as Rafael Furcal “lunged for a 1-2 changeup from Braves starter Jair Jurrjens and blooped it toward the outfield end of the third-base dugout. Jackson, wearing a glove on his lef thand, stood up, leaned back, reached deep into the crowd and made a backhanded stab high over his head, which he then celebrated with a series of fist pumps.”
How it goes down in the scorebook: If you’ve never been able to snag a ball — either in batting practice, one that goes foul, or by begging a ballboy — this is the next best thing.
If more fans had this kind of passion and aptitude for pulling a book together on a subject as simple as a piece of round cowhide — as well as giving away trade secrets on how to snag one — we’d all be better off.
Also: Hample has also co-authored a new book/journal/diary about baseball scorekeeping (linked here) that looks pretty sharp.