The book: “A People’s History of Baseball”
The author: Mitchell Nathanson, a professor of legal writing at Villanova’s School of Law.
The vital stats: University of Illinois Press, 275 pages, $29.95
The pitch: From the introduction: “A People’s History of Baseball is baseball history from an alternative viewpoint. Herein are stories focusing on the concept of baseball but ones that challenge convention and play out differently than the oft-told tales because of the shift in perspective. Regardless, they have much in common with the more well-known stories in that beyond their differing perspective, they are just that – stories. Rarely however, is a story merely a story.”
Herein is the challenge, with more legalese sprinkled about liberally.
The story with this book: Heavy reading about how stories we’ve been told about baseball should be put into context with what Nathanson calls the “counter-stories.”
In other words: Don’t believe everything you’ve been told about team ownership, integration, the media, expansion and the players’ association. From the perspective of Nathanson, seeing baseball as “idyllic American” rose colored glasses misses the bigger picture, the corrupt power grabs, WASPy elitism and some of the less flattering human qualities we possess are all part of baseball’s DNA through the years, but most of us have chosen not to specifically deal with it.
Do you dare read it? It’s your history, apparently. Especially if you’re up questioning the validity of what’s been passed off as common knowledge.
An excerpt: From Chapter 3 on “Race, Rickey and ‘All The Deliberate Speed’,” on the day before Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day:
“(The story of Branch Rickey’s bravery in signing Jackie Robinson with the Dodgers in 1947) has gone relatively unchallenged for decades … (but it is filled) with gaps and inconvenient facts pushed to the side. It is in this marginalia that another story lies …
“Although historically Rickey has been portrayed as a social reformer, in fact he was far from it, even by his own admission. Rather, he was a sharp baseball man with an eye on the bottom line whose baseball instincts just happen to run right smack into America’s burgeoning civil rights movement …
“To many who have tried to tackle the Rickey story and legacy in print, he remains a conundrum: an archconservative civil rights pioneer who opposed what he termed ‘radicalism’ in any form and in any matter … (but) he despised the Daily Worker as well as the agitation of the black press even though they were aggressively lobbying for what he repeatedly claimed was a fervent cause of his since … 1903 ..
“Through use of language (‘The Great Experiment,’ ‘the right player’) as well as his machinations leading up to the moment of integration itself, Rickey managed to maintain control over the narrative such that the rate and method of integration came to be dictated solely by those who ran Organized Baseball. This resulted in an integration effort on a superficial level only; even after Robinson’s debut, black players still could not claim that they had a ‘right’ to play Major League Baseball …
“Rickey left the Dodgers after the 1950 season to become general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, a team that had yet to break the color line … In Rickey’s fourth year with the club, Curt Roberts became the team’s first black player. Testament to his role as a baseball man rather than a civil rights crusader, Rickey by this point had turned his attention elsewhere in his efforts to improve the Pirate organization.”
How it goes down in the scorebook: A double-switch.
The book jacket says Nathan writes with “passion and occasional outrage.” Sometimes it comes off as more bitterness or misdirected anger, if unintentional.
There’s nothing really wrong for the history of the game that we’ve been told. Unless you love a good yarn, apparently.
Nathanson, a member of the Society of American Baseball Research who earlier produced the book “The Fall of the 1977 Phillies: How a Baseball Team’s Collapse Sank a City’s Spirit,” seems to want to make sure we have both sides, especially the ugly one that he seems to take some nastiness in uncovering to prove, apparently, that he knows more than we do.
He’s made his point. We’ll rethink a few things. But we’re not totally convinced that it’ll change our minds much. Just add to the context.
And by the way: Most books are published with a type size of about 14. This one is in 10. That may be fine for footnotes, bibliographies and occasional indexes. But when the content is tough enough to digest sentence by sentence because of the brainpower behind it, why add to the frustration of making the size of the print as microscopic as possible? Or, is that an agitating way of getting the author’s points across?