Book review of Baseball’s Best Ever: A Half Century of Covering Hall of Famers by Ira Berkow


Good sports journalism is not primarily about who won the game. It’s about who played the game – their mistakes and fears, triumphs and tears. It’s also about the social environment in which these games are played, about how sport reflects and reveals our humanity. In this collection of his newspaper columns, “Baseball’s Best Ever: A Half Century of Covering Hall of Famers,” Ira Berkow quotes another sportswriter, the immortal Red Smith, on this point: “Games are part of every culture we know . … The man covering these games is doing his small part in the record of his time.”

Berkow, who wrote primarily for the Newspaper Enterprise Association Syndicate and then The New York Times, donates more than a “little bit” to this record. I’ve often found myself skipping the stats and ranking he writes about – after all, we already know what happened – and focusing on the personal stories, particularly those of failure and disappointment. For example, here’s Mickey Mantle, one of my childhood idols, who told Berkow in 1971, three years after he retired from the New York Yankees, “Playing baseball is all I knew. It makes me kind of bitter that it’s all over. You look around and you see other guys my age, other guys in their forties who are just starting to peak in other jobs. And I’m done.”

Some stats can be fascinating, however, and one of my favorite columns showcases all the ways baseball’s biggest stars have screwed up. Warren Spahn, one of the greatest left-handed pitchers of all time, hit 434 home runs. Babe Ruth led the majors in strikeouts in four separate years and huffed 1,306 times — a yardstick for decades before Mantle threw more punches. The record for grounding in double plays in a single World Series is seven – held by Joe DiMaggio. “Sometimes, as the evidence shows, even the greatest among us aren’t great or even very good,” Berkow writes. “Somehow that’s encouraging.”

All collections of tracks released so far contain strengths and weaknesses. You can capture moments in real time, unfiltered by false nostalgia or faulty memories. But they can also feel dated and repetitive. Too many columns here focus on innocuous speeches by Hall of Famers and elegiac tributes to recently deceased classic cars.

But at his best, Berkow can spin a phrase like an all-star second baseman spinning a double play. Here he describes Ozzie Smith, the incredible St. Louis Cardinals shortstop: “He jumps, he dives, he spins. He appears to appear behind second base as if jumping out of the underground; He can soar and stay in the air like a hummingbird waiting for a line drive to arrive.” About Kirby Puckett, a plump but sturdy slugger for the Minnesota Twins, Berkow says he’s “built like a dynamite barrel and regular like one explodes”.

One of this volume’s recurring themes is the intersection between racing and baseball, and Berkow has a creative way of showing the influence of Jackie Robinson, who incorporated the sport in 1947. He turns to Ed Charles, a journeyman infielder in the 1960s, who recalls “The Greatest Day of My Life” when he was 13 and Robinson was passing through his Florida hometown with the Brooklyn Dodgers. “That’s when I realized I could play in the major leagues,” Charles said. “When it was over, we chased the Dodger train as far as we could while Robinson waved at us from behind. We ran until we couldn’t hear the sound anymore. We were exhausted, but we’ve never been happier.” For another perspective, Berkow interviews Larry Doby, who integrated the American League shortly after Robinson’s debut and recalled the loneliness of being a pioneer after the games were over: ” Then you would really like to be with your teammates, win or lose, and go about the game. But I went to my hotel in the black part of town and they went to their hotel.”

I laughed a lot too. One of my favorite characters is Lefty Gomez, a Yankees southpaw in the ’30s who once said of hitter Jimmie Foxx, “He’s got muscles in his hair.” Lefty’s catcher Bill Dickey recalled a game when Gomez kept banging his signs shrugged off when Foxx got the punch. Finally, Dickey ran to the mound and asked Lefty what he wanted to throw. “I don’t want to throw anything at him,” replied the pitcher. “Maybe he’ll get tired of waiting and go.”

A big part of baseball that’s often hidden from fans is the nagging injuries that plague many players — particularly catchers — over a six-month season. Johnny Bench, one of the best backstops of all time, said, “I was doused in so many painkillers to stay in the lineup that if I were a racehorse I would be illegal.” Rod Carew recalled the room with Tony Oliva, an outfielder who suffered a cartilage tear in his knee: “I would sleep and wake up and hear Tony crying like a baby in pain at night.”

Finally, two pieces of folk wisdom that apply to both sports journalists (and book critics) and ball players. One is from old Cardinals pitcher Dizzy Dean: “I ain’t what I used to be, but who the hell is.” And this one from Hurler Catfish Hunter, a North Carolina country boy: “The sun doesn’t always shine same dog.” True, but the sun shines through enough of these columns to make this collection worth reading.

Steven V. Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University. His latest book is “Cokie: A life well lived.”

Half a century of Hall of Famers

sports publisher. 528 pages. $40. Book review of Baseball’s Best Ever: A Half Century of Covering Hall of Famers by Ira Berkow

Chris Estrada

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