I'd like to begin this edition of Ben's Bookshelf with an apology.
To all of the individuals involved with the writing and production of each of the three books featured in this column, I am sorry. Each one is worthy of its own standalone column, as they are all entertaining and edifying pieces of work that will enrich the lives of those who choose to engage with them. But in the midst of a very busy 2014 baseball season, I did not get around to writing about them in a timely fashion.
This article, then, is an offseason attempt to right those wrongs. It is written with the hope that you, the literary-minded Minor League baseball fan, might be inspired to read these worthwhile additions to the baseball book canon.
Bull City Summer, edited by Sam Stephenson (Daylight Books, 2014)
The Durham Bulls franchise already has inspired a classic baseball movie, and now it's inspired a classic baseball book. Or a book that deserves to become a classic, at any rate. Bull City Summer, a project initiated and overseen by writer and documentarian Sam Stephenson, is an inspired, educational and often breathtaking work of art that provides a multi-faceted look at the day-to-day machinations of the iconic International League franchise.
Bull City Summer's premise, simple yet profound, is outlined on the first page: "In 2013, a team of artists converged on the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in Durham, North Carolina, to document the 72-game [home] season. The results are presented here." What follows is a series of essays both written and photographic, with those in the latter category fully justifying the book's hefty coffee table format (and correspondingly pricey $49.95 price tag). Bull City Summer often finds the beauty within the mundane: Leah Sobsey offers a series of warm, compassionate photos of DBAP fans and employees, for example, while Frank Hunter's vivid shots of a light tower set against rolling banks of clouds are imbued with magic and majesty. Anchoring the book is the writing of Adam Sobsey, a playwright and journalist whose cerebral, empathic prose helps contextualize the images seen elsewhere.
"Durham looks old, but it's really rather young, just like its ballpark, and it's currently undergoing an astonishing reinvention from a 'dreary tobacco town' (as North Carolina's favorite literary son, Thomas Wolfe, called it) to a bright cultural destination," Adam Sobsey writes in Bull City Summer's opening essay. "Baseball, too, is fundamentally subject to change and renewal, after every single pitch. Nowhere is this molting pleasure more present than the chimerical and volatile realm called Triple-A: never the same game or same team twice. Triple-A is what baseball -- the game famous for having no clock -- really is: the national present time."
Versus the Demons, by Michael Wellman (Outskirts Press, 2013)
Versus the Demons follows the trials and travails of young Harald "Shorty" Irslund, a first-generation Swedish-American from smalltown Iowa who, in a portentous twist of fate, is born during the first night game in the history of professional baseball (at Holcomb Park in Des Moines). The mystic circumstances of his birth have resulted in an otherworldly connection with baseball player-turned-crusading temperance evangelist Billy Sunday, who delivers personalized sermons to Shorty from beyond the grave. Upon graduating high school, Shorty embarks on a peripatetic Minor League career strikes up an earnest, long-running correspondence with a crusader of a different sort: Progressive Party torchbearer and former Vice President Henry Wallace.
This somewhat fantastical setup is reminiscent of W.P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe (upon which the movie Field of Dreams was based). But Wellman's reliance on magical realism in no way overwhelms the narrative, which simply follows Shorty's upbringing in the Swedish enclave of Snoosville and his subsequent baseball adventures. Shorty is a likeable if insubstantial fellow, but his travels across the American landscape as a career Minor Leaguer illuminate the life of a small-time postwar ballplayer. He falls in love with a host family's daughter while playing for the Madisonville Miners of the Kitty League, rooms with Mickey Mantle in Joplin, Missouri, and meets a young Bobby Richardson in Olean, New York. All the while, Sunday and Wallace engage in a battle of sorts for Shorty's heart and mind, with each man representing ideologies that are as dissimilar as they are deeply American.
The end result is a novel that both entertains and educates, one that has much to say, not just about baseball but about what it is to be an average American striving to live by the country's purported values.
"Some zealot/patriot types think that this country began pristinely," Shorty opines late in the book. "That's not so. Divinely inspired, perhaps, but American righteousness must be achieved more in the course of its history than at its inception. So far, we have trod a path more noble than smooth, I think."
The Greatest Minor League: A History of the Pacific Coast League, 1903-57, by Dennis Snelling (McFarland, 2011)
In size, shape and feel, The Greatest Minor League resembles a high school social studies textbook -- so much so that I was tempted to make a brown paper bag cover for it and write my name on the inside flap. But don't let that fool you -- this is as informative and fun a league history as one could ever hope to read. Snelling covers the Pacific Coast League from its halting, turn-of-the-century beginnings to its long run as a de facto "third Major League" to its protracted turf battle with Major League Baseball as that entity set its sights on westward expansion.
The Greatest Minor League features copious footnotes and a thorough index and appendix, making it indispensable for those who may be doing their own PCL-related research. But the narrative should be enough to enthrall any fan of baseball history. Despite its success, the PCL was always in flux, and Snelling's attention to the league's internecine battles and the colorful characters who fought them does much to illuminate the evolution of West Coast professional baseball.
And, best of all, interesting anecdotes and trivia abound. Did you know that, in 1905, Los Angeles and Oakland played a doubleheader that was completed in one hour and 40 minutes? Or that San Francisco Seals slugger Ping Bodie was prone to colorful statements such as "I rammy-cackled the old spheroid"? Or that, in 1911, Vernon Tigers center fielder Walter Carlisle turned an unassisted triple play? Or that, the following season, Heine Heitmuller of the Los Angeles Angels won the batting title after dying of typhoid fever? Or that in 1917, Joe Mathes of the Angels made a throwing error in the midst of an earthquake that measured 6.8 on the Richter scale? Or that, in 1952, Joe Singleton of the Seals pitched 12 1/3 no-hit innings before losing the game in the 13th?
I could go on (and on and on), but you get the point. After reading this book, it's hard to argue with Snelling's assertion that the PCL truly was the Minors' "greatest league."