At first glance, the title of Hal Bodley’s latest book on baseball seems almost too deep. “How Baseball Explains America” (Triumph Books; hardcover; $24.95; 244 pages) offers a challenging premise. It’s a book about how the game has impacted the fiber of American society, but how can Bodley pull it off in less than 250 pages?
Simple. Draw upon the wealth of knowledge and observations gleaned from more than 55 years of covering the game, and artfully fit them within 17 compact chapters. Bodley, the first baseball editor at USA Today and currently the senior correspondent for MLB.com, writes thoughtfully and passionately about the game. This is a guy that has covered 43 World Series, 42 All-Star games and has covered more than 4,000 games. He also has interviewed six sitting presidents of the United States.
The reader may not agree with all of his opinions — in some cases, I certainly didn’t, particularly in his assessments of Bud Selig and Bowie Kuhn — but one cannot dispute Bodley’s smooth style.
He begins “How Baseball Explains America” by asserting that the modern game — and society — had its roots in the 1940s. Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, Ted Williams’ .406 batting average, Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier and players fighting during World War II — all were seminal moments in the game’s history.
“In our country’s darkest moments, baseball has been an escape, preserving and helping us get through difficult times,” he writes.
That phrase could be applied to World War II or to the post-9/11 days, when President George W. Bush walked to the mound to throw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium during the 2002 World Series.
Bodley examines drugs in baseball, from amphetamines in the 1950s to the current problems of steroids and HGH. In 1985, as a cocaine scandal rocked baseball, Bodley confessed that he “spent more time chasing stories about drugs and management’s sparring with the players union over the subject than reporting the game on the field.”
Bodley, because of his longevity, had many encounters with baseball’s owners and executives, including George Steinbrenner, Ray Kroc, Selig and Kuhn. His respect for Selig is evident in his prose, and while the current commissioner has his detractors, Bodley believes Selig has been a deliberate, effective leader and calls him “the best commissioner in baseball.”
There are some great anecdotes in this book from the late Don Zimmer, referencing his days with the Cubs, his captaincy there and the College of Coaches, and his experiences with then-Texas Rangers owner Eddie Chiles.
One of the more intriguing chapters is called “A Family Game,” and revolves around three-generational baseball families like the Bells (Gus, Buddy, David and Mike), the Boones (Ray, Bob, Aaron and Bret) and the Hairstons (Sammy, Jerry, Johnny and Jerry Jr.) to name a few. Another one is a chapter on the three managers who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on July 27: Bobby Cox, Tampa native Tony La Russa and Joe Torre. Bodley uses his memories and meshes them with those of the trio’s players and contemporaries. It’s timely and interesting.
There also is a chapter devoted to all the major-leaguers who have come from Oakland, like Hall of Famers Frank Robinson, Joe Morgan, Rickey Henderson and Willie Stargell. Another chapter allows Bodley to reminisce about his encounters with presidents, how Bill Clinton enjoyed watching Cardinals games on the television as a youth, Ronald Reagan’s enthusiasm about broadcasting baseball games on the radio, and the Bush family’s love for the game.
An no book about the fabric of American history in the second half of the 20th century would be complete without a chapter about Jackie Robinson.
Bodley ends his book with a chapter called “There Used to Be a Ballpark,” a reference to the sad, sweet ballad recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1973. This chapter, predictably, is a look at the great baseball parks of the past, and how “the summer went so quickly” in those legendary parks.
Bodley’s writing reminds one of sitting in a ballpark and chatting with a friend between pitches. He has his opinions, sure, but unlike his contemporaries, Bodley does not have the bluster of a Dick Young, the poetic license of a Red Smith or the phrase-turning acumen of a Jim Murray. His storytelling ability and pleasant tone almost makes one forget about his hard-working, diligent qualities. He combines them all so effectively.
This book may appeal more to the older generation of baseball fans, but there is plenty of rich material that ought to interest modern fans, too.