For The Love Of It All
Reading Good Writing Regardless Of The Subject...
Joe Posnanski - The Baseball 100 (Simon & Schuster, 2021)
Joe Posnanski - Why We Love Baseball: A History in 50 Moments (Dutton, 2023)
Father Bernard DeBosier taught me English Literature as a Little Rock Catholic High School senior…
A brief aside. I cannot mention Fr. DeBosier without mentioning Mr. Bill Jones, who taught me American Literature. Elegant and refined, Mr. Jones introduced me to Joe Christmas from William Faulkner’s Light In August (Smith & Haas, 1932) and Sam Croft from Norman Mailer’s The Naked And The Dead (Rinehart & Company, 1948), not to mention The Glimmer Twins from the Rolling Stones. Mr. Jones deserved much better students than he had. Anyway, back to the subject at hand.
Fr. DeBosier was a character, to be sure, but he was a wise one. He counseled me when I went to college to seek out instructors with the best reputation for teaching regardless of the subject. “These are the teachers that love their subject and what they do and there is much to learn from them,” were his exact words. This led me to a religion class at Hendrix College, “Biblical Literature And Thought,” taught by one Francis Christie, and this was one of the best college courses I took during an embarrassing number of unused years in higher education.
Tweaking this suggestion just a bit, I would recommend that people read books written by writers writing about what they love. I have found examples in many different areas, but few are as fruitful as sports writing, specifically about baseball. Baseball is such a perfect subject — It is America’s Game. It is the stuff of the dark American Romantic Myth that gave us the gambler and gunfighter Doc Holiday and jass trumpeter Chet Baker, two other elements of said myth. One’s interest can be as detailed as its nitty-gritty sabermetrics or as general as its cultural value and Romantic specter.
While I have watched much baseball, from Sandy Kofax to Greg Maddux, I was never drawn to its shiny guts. Rather, the Baseball that documentary director Ken Burns featured in his PBS series Baseball (National Endowment of the Arts, 1994) fully got my attention, if for nothing else the breadth of humanity it exposed. Burns did the same thing with The Civil War (Florentine Films, 1991), Jazz (PBS, 2001), and Country Music (PBS, 2019). Burns developed an effective documentary method and reproduced it over and over with great success.
Baseball has a long history that lends it conveniently to retrospective consideration. Sports writer Joe Posnanski (Kansas City Star, Sports Illustrated) has written two provocative ruminations on the sport, the first a history cast against its 100 greatest players, The Baseball 100, and the second a reduction of that history into 50 classic moments in the sport, Why We Love Baseball: A History in 50 Moments. Posnanski proves himself efficient and frugal, realizing after having researched the former that he had enough material for the latter.
For a fair-weather baseball fan seeking the proud heart of the American Romantic Myth, I found it at the end of The Baseball 100. Posnanski lists the 100 most…[you fill in the criteria] baseball players in history. His method for ranking the players ranges from the nakedly subjective (No. 100, Ichiro Suzuki, “Uniqueness is, by definition, the highest bar imaginable in baseball. Ichiro Suzuki was unique. There has never been anyone like him. And, if I had to guess, there never will be again.”) to fanciful (No. 84 Cool Papa Bell, “A million stories began with this basic construction: ‘James “Cool Papa” Bell was so fast…[that contemporary] Jesse Owens refused to race [him].”), to practical and poetic, in the author’s words regarding his system:
“But I have no illusions about the formula. It is as flawed as anything so, whenever possible, I attached the player and a number that fits. So, for instance, Mariano Rivera is 91 for Psalm 91, the Psalm of Protection. Gary Carter is 86 for his role on the 1986 Mets1. Joe DiMaggio is 56 for the hitting streak. Grover Cleveland Alexander is 26 because that was his magical year, 1926.
Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Jimmie Foxx, Greg Maddux, Mike Trout, Jackie Robinson, Frank Robinson and Mike Schmidt, among others, were all given a ranking based on their uniform numbers. I would say at least two-thirds of the numbers have some sort of connection to the ballplayer.
I even skipped No. 19 because of the ’19 Black Sox, the biggest single-year scandal in baseball history.
That’s not to say that I couldn’t defend the individual rankings. I’m sure I could. But to do so would be to say negative things about various players’ talent, which goes against the very essence of this project. And anyway, fighting over the questions — Ted Williams over Ty Cobb? Steve Carlton over Sandy Koufax? Carl Yastrzemski over Ken Griffey? — is a big part of the fun.”
The anger people feel when seeing their player under-ranked is a good anger.
These are the words of a man who dearly loves his subject matter. He makes defensible the ranking of the best baseball players in a narrative telling the story of America through sports.
Pearlman’s deep regard emerges after reaching the final 10 players. Specifically, his Number 5: Oscar Charleston. It is from this section the above quote was taken. It is here that Posnanski joins Ken Burns and the many before him to put an ever sharper point on American Institutional Racism and its malignant sequelae, dirtying the faces of the Baseball Romantic Myth along with those of Manifest Destiny and Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857).
In this second most powerful section of his book (the first will be discussed later), Posnanski wants to shock the reader from his or her cultural stupor to appreciate the humanity it took to make this game something other than a game. Picking up where Posnanski introduced the above quote:
“I want this one ranking to make you angry.
We are now close to the end, and all along I have tried not to mention the rankings. There is a specific reason for this: the rankings are just a device. Someone once asked Orson Welles if Mr. Thompson, the man who goes in search of Rosebud in Citizen Kane, learned anything or grew at all throughout the movie. “He’s not a person,” Welles raged. “He’s a piece of machinery to lead you through.”
That’s how I view rankings…
I did mess around when matchmaking some other players and numbers, but the point is that I tried to attach a number that fit the player. But that’s not to say that I will not defend the individual rankings. I do that all the time. I will happily argue Ted Williams over Ty Cobb, Steve Carlton over Sandy Kofax, Carl Yastrzemski over Ken Griffey. That’s a big part of the fun.
I am just saying I could argue the other side just as easily.
But not on this one. No, ranking Oscar Charleston at No. 5, is different.
I want you to feel the fury of this ranking, feel it down deep. I want you to think, if you are so inclined, “Look, I’m sure he was terrific, but there’s no way possible that Oscar Charleston, who played in a struggling league 100 years ago, could possibly be the fifth greatest player of all time.”
Or, I want you to think, “Fifth Greatest? That’s ridiculous. He should be No. 1!”
Or I want you to think, “This is pure romanticism. We have almost no stats on Charleston. We have only a handful of quotes about him. You can’t rank someone this high on the list based on a few crusty legends and myths.”
Or I want you to think, “It’s such an infuriating tragedy that we as an entire nation never got to see the greatest player in the history of baseball.”
Or I want you to think, “How is it that I’ve never even heard of this guy?”
Or I want you to think some of those thoughts together, or even all of them at the same time. This ranking, unlike the rest, is a statement and, even more, it’s a challenge. Oscar Charleston is the fifth greatest player in baseball history? It is meant to make you think about what you think.
See, Charleston — Charlie, as he was called — is different. I would say he, more than Satchel Paige, more than Josh Gibson, more than Cool Papa Bell, more than any player in baseball history in my view, represents that time in America when African Americans were invisible to much of the country, when baseball was played exclusively by white men, when being black and playing ball was like howling into the wind.
But Charleston? Even now, if you asked moderate baseball fans across America, how many would even recognize his name?
Yes, I want you to feel rage about this ranking. Because there are only two possibilities. One is that I’m over-ranking Charleston, perhaps out of a raw sentimentality.
The other is that this is about right, that he was one of the greatest — maybe even the greatest — baseball player who ever lived and most of America ignored him.
And — here’s where the rage part comes in — we’ll never know for sure.
And with that, Joe Posnanski sums up the rage we should all feel when considering baseball and racism, the two American pastimes forever embraced, before moving on to his finale at No.1.
After having crafted 99 brief and intensely detailed essays, each dedicated to a specific person while also capturing a time, a place, and a unique historical significance, Posnanski reveals his No.1 greatest baseball player. But more important than the person, Posnanski bares all in his, if not defense, then his explanation of his choice. He reveals a deeply personal and humble self-awareness that expands the discussion well beyond baseball into a realm where love, gratitude, disappointment, sadness, and Grace meet to properly populate one’s life.
Here Posnanski delivers the goods:
“Can anyone know [who the greatest baseball player is]?
But wait! Of course we can know. More than that: We do know. We know the answers to all these questions and more because … well, because we know. See, all along, this journey has not just been about the greatest players in baseball history. It has been about us, too: fans. It’s about the things we believe in, the myths we hold dear, the statistics we embrace, the memories we carry.
When a magician performs magic, it doesn’t mean anything unless there is someone on the other end feeling wonder.
So, yes, we know who was the greatest ever. We know because baseball goes back more than 150 years to that time when America didn’t have a sport or a fully realized identity of its own. Americans boxed and played cricket but who didn’t? Football was still rugby. Horses raced. Boats raced. Basketball and hockey had not yet been invented. Golf and tennis had not quite made it over the ocean.
And baseball spread from town to town like gossip. “Baseball is the hurrah game of the republic!” America’s poet Walt Whitman said in 1889, and by then he had been writing on and off about the game for 40 years. It didn’t look like our baseball at first — it was called “base ball” or “base-ball” — but it got there pretty quickly. And baseball tied communities together. Baseball gave people something to share. Baseball created a new language. And, sure, it launched a few million dreams along the way.
And then it was always there. It didn’t fade away, even when so many other things did. And when America grappled with the meaning of “All men are created equal,” baseball asked that same question. When America searched for its soul, baseball searched for its soul.
And the greatest players … made people feel something more than baseball, something deeper than ground-rule doubles and infield flies and called strikes and an outfielder hitting the cutoff. Who is the greatest player of all time? You know. Maybe your father told you. Maybe you read about him when you were young. Maybe you sat in the stands and saw him play. Maybe you bask in his statistics. The greatest baseball player is the one who lifts you higher and makes you feel exactly like you did when you fell in love with this crazy game in the first place.
And now, let’s talk about Willie Mays.
Whatever one’s passion, it and its occupancy in one’s life can be reduced to that which “lifts you higher and makes you feel exactly like you did when you fell in love with this crazy game in the first place.”
The 1986 Baseball season was covered, in a very different way, by sports writer Jeff Pearlman in The Bad Guys Won: A Season of Brawling, Boozing, Bimbo Chasing, and Championship Baseball with Straw, Doc, Mookie, Nails, the Kid, and the Rest of the ... Put on a New York Uniform--and Maybe the Best (HarperCollins, 2004).