“Who Got Game?: Baseball: Amazing but True Stories”
Author: Derrick Barnes
Illustrated by John John Bajet
Publisher: Workman Publishing
Price: $12.95 (paper)
It has been over a month now since the 2020 baseball season should have opened and there is an empty place in the hearts of millions of Americans. The national pastime is on indefinite hold.
Happily, this little book, designed I guess for youngsters, satisfies a small part of that need.
Since baseball is a game infused with statistics, there are lots of these. Sadaharu Oh, of Japan, has hit 868 home runs, more than Aaron or Ruth or Bonds or anyone.
Hank Greenberg, one of the country’s few Jewish baseball stars, in 1942 joined the U.S. Army, missing nearly four seasons to serve his country.
This is not a history of baseball or a boring play-by-play of great games, or a compendium of biographies in any orderly way. “Who Got Game” is a collection of odd facts, anecdotes, some familiar, some not, and peculiar characters, in which baseball abounds.
Everyone knows, or at least believes, that Jackie Robinson in 1947 was the first to break the color line, the first African-American to play in the major leagues. Here we are reminded that professional baseball goes back a long ways. There were four black players in the nineteenth century.
Moses Fleetwood Walker was the last. He took the field for the Newark Little Giants in July of 1887. Opposing manager Cap Anson of the Chicago White Stockings objected to playing against a black man, the manager of the Little Giants capitulated and “African Americans would not have the opportunity to play in the majors for another sixty years.”
A lot of sensational talent went unseen or seen only in the Negro leagues. Satchel Paige from Mobile was probably the best pitcher ever.
“Sometimes, just for show, he’d call his outfielders in when a batter stepped to the plate, letting everyone know he didn’t think the batter would hit what he was throwing. Then…he would strike the batter out.”
Paige made it to the majors in 1948 at the age of 42, after most players have retired, and was a star. He pitched in the World Series, and was a two-time Major League Baseball All- Star. He retired at the age of 59.
Hitting a major league pitch has long been considered the hardest single challenge in sport. That was when the pitch came in at 90 or 95 miles per hour.
Recently, however, with players stronger and better conditioned, the pitches are arriving at home plate even faster. In 2010 Aroldis Chapman, with the Cincinnati Reds, threw a fastball 105.1 mph. Jordan Hicks has been clocked at 105.0 mph. It is a wonder the batter can see it, never mind react in time to hit it.
Often it is not speed but movement that makes a pitch difficult to hit.
The spitball—the name says it all—was a challenge before it was outlawed. And sometimes other odd factors played a part. Mordecai Brown was a coal miner who played ball for fun. As a child his hand was caught in a machine made for separating corn and grain and his right index finger was sliced off.
“The next year, while chasing a rabbit, he fell and broke the remaining fingers on his right hand, leaving him with a bent middle finger and a paralyzed little finger.”
He nevertheless learned to grip the ball and made it to the major leagues. His injuries caused the pitch to bob in such a way that no less than Ty Cobb said Mordecai’s pitch “was the most deceiving, the most devastating pitch I ever faced.”
Obviously, batting can be dangerous. Before helmets were worn, batters hit in the head might be seriously injured. Hughie Jennings, playing for the Orioles in 1925, was hit and suffered a fractured skull. He recovered, played a few more years and then went to Cornell Law School. At Cornell one evening he dove into the indoor pool but failed to notice it was empty—no water. He suffered another serious head injury but nevertheless worked as a trial lawyer for a while before returning to baseball to manage the Tigers for 14 years.
There are entries here on mascots, baseball salaries over the decades, Tommy John surgery, the curse of the Bambino, George Brett’s pine tar incident, the longest game ever—33 innings, 8 hours and 25 minutes—and Jackie Mitchell, a female minor league pitcher who struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, probably.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.