A few years ago at the annual Friends of the Alamance County Library Book Sale I uncovered a real treasure. It’s a book about ultimate truths. It’s a book full of wisdom for the ages. It’s a book brimming with best practices of every description. And it’s a book published in 1951.
And it’s a book that’s really all about baseball. There’s no hidden message. Any agenda is purely imagined. it’s devoid of politics. It was written after World War II but before Vietnam. It was a time when the nation was taking a breath to rest on its laurels, assess its place in the world and fully understand what life here means. And more, what success boils down to.
But deep down, this book is only — and I emphasize only — about how to play the game of baseball better. It’s not really meant for adults — but kids learning how to pitch, catch and hit while explaining the nuances of the game or playing on a team. The title? Even it is to the point: “The Real Book About Baseball.” It’s written in old school language of the time, when teams were made up of diamonders and lineups consisted of “nines” comprised of first, second and third sackers. Home runs were round-trippers.
It’s fun to read and is full of observations that can be applied to nearly anything. Here are a few I’m sharing today as the long regular season comes to a close and the playoffs are set to begin.
“Anyone who is healthy can play and enjoy baseball. Even if you never become a big leaguer or a minor leaguer, you can learn to play the game well and can get something out of it that will stay with you all your life. But you can’t always tell who may turn out to be a big leaguer! The big leagues are full of players who didn’t look like very promising material when they were young fellows.”
“A good baserunner always hustles. Even if he hits an easy grounder or fly, he will ‘run it out’ full speed hoping for an error. He doesn’t stop to see where the ball went, but starts running as fast as he can.”
“There is room in baseball, even in the big leagues, for people who were never stars. They may be trainers, or scouts, or sometimes even managers. The Yankees won 15 pennants while Joe McCarthy was the manager and he never made the big leagues as a player. Very few sports writers were star players themselves, yet they live and travel with the teams and put all the drama and skill of the game down on paper so millions who can’t see a particular game can still get pleasure from it.”
“Joe (DiMaggio) looked like a good player from the beginning and stayed good. His brother Dom (DiMaggio) didn’t look good at the beginning, but he became good. The boy who may seem clumsier and doesn’t hit the ball as easily as the next may be the one who is more eager to keep trying and learning. He may end up as the better player.”
“The words ‘follow-through’ are very important for good performance, not only in baseball, but in other sports like golf, tennis, and forward passing in football. You will hear the good coach and teacher yelling the magic words, ‘follow through!’, follow through!” very often.”
“This double steal (runners on first and third) is one of the most exciting and interesting plays in baseball. It calls for teamwork between the base-runners and demands that players have the ability to change plans quickly as things happen.”
“Baseball also teaches the great lesson of team play. It teaches the simple meaning of the word ‘democracy’ because on the ball field nothing matters but how you play the game. You are a second baseman or right fielder. Never mind anything else. Catch that fly. Scoop up that grounder. Do the best you can and that’s the way you will be judged.
. . . “In fact, there are some big leaguers who weren’t born in our country but still became part of our great national pastime. Bobby Thomson was born in Scotland, Reno Bertoia in Italy, Beto Avila in Mexico, Juan Pizzaro in Puerto Rico, Minnie Minoso in Cuba. A game with this kind of democracy at its heart has something to teach . . . “
“The east-west layout on all big league fields explains where we get the word ‘southpaw’ to describe a lefthanded pitcher. A pitcher’s left arm is always to the south as he stands on the mound facing the batter. Bet you didn’t know that before!”
“Stealing and the hit and run play are only one part of base running. Another part is hustling all the time on the bases, taking nothing for granted, running for that extra base when there is a chance. Alert baseball pays off. It forces the other teams to throw, and whenever there is a throw, there is a chance of an error. Hustling base runners can upset a whole team and win big ball games.”
“(The shortstop) must never be afraid of making errors and he must never be discouraged. A good shortstop is always alert, always alive. He never just stands around.”
“Important as it is (for a first baseman) to have his foot on base whenever possible, you must not become a slave to the idea of keeping it there no matter what. After all, it’s the ball that counts! If you can’t catch the ball with your foot on base, get off the base fast — but nab the ball. If you catch it, or even knock it down, you may still be able to scramble to the bag in time to put the runner out. But whether you put him out or not, you will prevent him from taking an extra base. A common amateur error is to stretch out for a ball in perfect form and have it whiz by out of reach.”
This particular nugget is one I find very important in how anyone should handle tough situations. If in doubt . . .
“The play the third baseman dreads occurs when a powerful right-handed hitter swings with all his might and just tops the ball. The result is usually a very slow grounder down the third base line. Because the batter was a strong right-handed hitter, the third baseman will be playing deep. The only way he can throw the batter out at first is to race in, full speed, meet the ball, grab it with his right hand and fire it in the same motion to first. It is a play in which he can easily throw the ball away — that is throw it past the first baseman, allowing the batter to keep right on going to second. Therefore, one of the earmarks of a smart third baseman is that he knows when he CAN’T possibly get the runner on this play and so doesn’t throw after picking up the ball.”
And as a nearsighted kid with a heavy astigmatism and glasses so thick they could repel bullets, seeing any ballplayer wearing glasses was a big deal. My favorite ballplayer when I was growing up was a St. Louis Cardinals second baseman, Julian Javier. He wore glasses, just like me.
“You can still be a good batter even if you wear glasses. At one time in the Big Leagues no ball player would wear glasses even if he needed them. He was afraid of razzing from the fans and from players on the other teams. Today a star wears glasses and no one thinks anything about it. Several great hitters in recent years have worn glasses — Mel Ott, Chuck Haley, Paul Waner. No pitcher dared kid these mighty hitters because they had the good sense to improve their vision!”
And for the playoffs last year I rooted for the Cubs because it had been so long since they won it. This year I’m backing Cleveland, same reason.