Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Baseball

Today is the 91st anniversary of the death of Ray Chapman, the Cleveland Indian shortstop and only player to be killed by a pitched ball.  This I learned from, The Baseball; Stunts, Scandals, and Secrets Beneath the Stitches, the new book by Zack Hample.

I often get baseball books as gifts from my mother and she gave me Hample's third book earlier this summer.  I wrote a sincere note of appreciation—on a ball hit out of the park in Richmond; wasn't that cute?—so I hope mom doesn't feel hurt when I state, this is a book with more padding than a old-time catchers mitt.

Hample is best known for having caught thousands of baseballs.  He caught his first 1,000 before leaving for college.  In lieu of a summer job after his freshman year, Hample wrote his first book, How to Snag Major League Baseballs, legitimizing his avocation and turning him into a media personality.  The Baseball is the kind of book a person can write when they become a brand.

The worst padding is Part Three.  Almost 40 percent of the book's 323 pages, this section is a reprise of his first publication.  It even has the same title.  The 1999 edition of How to Snag appears to be out-of-print but widely available on Amazon.  I might forgive Hample and Anchor Books for an abbreviated reprint except the topic is only tangentially related to the current subject.

Part One is also weak, more compendium than book.  A promising opening about the history of the foul ball veers off to collecting them as souvenirs, a sign of things to come in Part Three.  There is foul ball "lore," a chapter on players and fans killed or hurt by baseballs, miscellany gathered under the heading of "Stunts," and some of the strangest material, "Foul Balls in Pop Culture."  If you want a critique of the veracity of Season 2, Episode 1 of Sex and the City—Carrie gets a ball at Yankee Stadium—it's in here.

There is a lot of filler in Part One but any fan of the game will probably find a few nuggets of interest.  As already noted, Raymond Johnson Chapman was killed in 1920 when he was hit in the temple by Yankee pitcher Carl Mays.  By the fifth inning, the ball was dirty and Chapman apparently never saw the pitch.  After that, umpires were ordered to put new balls in play more frequently.

Photograph by MamaGeek used through GNU License

I had forgotten that until the 1920s, home run and foul balls were retrieved and used until lost or severely damaged.  I never knew that Reuben Berman refused to return a foul ball caught on May 16, 1921 at the Polo Grounds, changing this practice.  Berman was thrown out of the stadium but later sued the Giants.  The court found in his favor, changing the definition of who owns a foul ball.

First there was less incentive to get balls back from fans, then it was legally questionable, just two of the influences that caused the sport to go from using a handful of balls each game to 15,000 or more per team every season.

The most substantial section of the book is Part Two, "Historical and Factual Stuff."  The first chapter sets down the evolution of the ball.  Fans who remember accusations that the balls were made more lively in the years following the 1994 strike-shortened season (a period when some of the players were "juiced" themselves) might be intrigued that this complaint has reoccurred over history.

Traditional cork-centered ball, left, and
rubber-centered ball used during World War II

Controversies over the construction of baseballs cause Major League Baseball and Rawlings to limit what is known.  "The Rawlings Method" will probably tell you as much as you will ever learn.  Even here, Hample and Anchor cannot resist the urge to pad, closing with 12 pages of photographs of commemorative balls.  The last chapter in Part Two describes the storage, preparation and usage of major league balls; more good stuff.

I wish there was more of the good stuff.  In his introduction, Hample writes that the book is about "The ball—the actual baseball itself."  Only partially, but when he does he is pretty interesting.  If you are interested in chasing down batting practice, home run and foul balls as keepsakes, you'll probably find lots to like.

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