Welcome to Ben's Bookshelf, a recurring offseason column that will highlight Minor League books of note. Interested in submitting a book for review or providing your opinion on recent Minor League-themed releases? Then send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @bensbiz.
Working in baseball invariably involves long hours and low pay, and as such, it is often characterized as a young man's (or woman's game). The vast majority of those who work in the industry weren't even born in 1956, let alone employed by a team.
And then there's longtime Norfolk Tides general manager Dave Rosenfield (currently the team's executive vice president), a true titan of Minor League Baseball whose career does indeed date back to 1956. Eisenhower was president, Elvis' self-titled album was climbing the charts, My Fair Lady had just opened on Broadway and there was Rosenfield, a 26-year-old baseball industry novice improvising his way through his first season as the general manager of the independent Class C Bakersfield Boosters. This was when the term "general manager" had a far more expansive meaning than it does today -- Rosenfield was the Boosters' only full-time employee, and in addition to selling tickets and balancing the books, he also was responsible for acquiring players as well as catching batting practice. When the team was short-handed, he even would go so far as to place himself on the active roster.
These experiences -- and many, many others -- are detailed in Rosenfield's engaging new memoir, Baseball ... One Helluva Life. This freewheeling first-person tome, presented "as told to" Albuquerque Isotopes general manager John Traub (a Rosenfield protégé), is more-or-less a chronological account of Rosenfield's eight-plus decades on the planet. It begins in Great Depression-era Texas and concludes in present-day Norfolk, but includes room for innumerable tangents related to all aspects of Rosenfield's life.
"But I digress" is a phrase that is used dozens of times throughout the book, and these off-the-cuff recollections make Baseball ... One Helluva Life the reading equivalent of a long, booze-soaked night at a bar in which Rosenfield is holding court. (A representative snippet: "And speaking of mustaches, I've got another mustache story." And away he goes...)
The constant digressions and casual conversational tone could be off-putting to some readers, but anyone with even a passing interest in the business of the Minor Leagues and baseball history in general will be along for the ride. Rosenfield is an outsized character in every way ("a giant ... both literally and figuratively," as the book's back cover puts it), a gregarious and oft-intimidating personality who has weighed as much as 380 pounds and admits that raw hamburger and Saltines were once one of his favorite snacks. He has a penchant for off-color language and rarely minces his words (New York Mets COO Jeff Wilpon receives a particularly scathing verbal evisceration), and he is well aware that his aggressive demeanor and "my way or the highway" mentality has resulted in a fair share of detractors.
But Rosenfield contends "I'm not as big of a horse's ass as some people may think I am," and the book bears this out. He makes many heartfelt observations regarding the importance of his personal and professional relationships, occasionally excoriates himself for perceived failings as a family man and speaks with great enthusiasm about former employees who have gone on to great success.
Broadcasters in particular are singled out for praise, as the likes of Marty Brennaman and Pete van Wieren worked for the Tides before going on to Major League stardom. But it is noted sitcom scribe-turned-Tides broadcaster Ken Levine who ensured that Rosenfield's name will live on in syndicated glory for time immemorial. Levine penned the 1990 Simpsons episode "Dancin' Homer," during which Homer completely flops as the mascot for the Capital City Capitals. He is then fired by an apoplectic general manager with the name of -- you guessed it -- Rosenfield.
"Even today, whenever that episode airs, I will get phone calls or emails from people telling me they saw it," he said.
A Simpsons cameo would be the story of a lifetime for the average individual, but Rosenfield has led what he calls a "star-crossed life," and the book is chock full of anecdotes regarding the famous folks he has crossed paths with. In addition to the hundreds of former and future baseball greats he has interacted with in the Minor Leagues, Rosenfield palled around with Sparky Anderson as a child, played against Jackie Robinson as a semi-pro, dated Lucille Ball's second cousin and coached actor David Janssen (the main character on The Fugitive.) "My life just weaved in and around, and I ended up knowing these people, usually before they went on to become famous," he remarks.
But serendipitous "before they were stars" encounters are a secondary pleasure. The primary reason to read Baseball ... One Helluva Life is because Rosenfield serves as a living link to a completely bygone era of Minor League history. Reading a book that is written entirely in his voice is akin to seeing Don Rickles perform comedy or Pete Seeger play the banjo. It is rare to be in the presence of an elder statesmen who, through a combination of tenacity, talent and sheer good fortune, is still able to excel at his craft at a time when most of his peers have retired, or in many cases, passed on. Certainly, there are very few people still working who can tell us what led to the dissolution of the Three-I League, or what it was like to drink with Max Patkin, or that former National Association president George Trautman had, yes, "breath like the fart of a dragon."
These are anecdotes to be savored, and given Rosenfield's propensity for storytelling and the improbable length of his storied career, I can't help but wonder whether there's enough material for a sequel.
But I digress...