If you are going to lug an 869-page book halfway around the world, it had better be a good one.
As usual, the great Joe Posnanski came through.
This year much of the baseball postseason is passing me by. I’ve only been able to watch the wild card round and the start of the division series and then — depending on how many games are involved — I may catch the end of the World Series once I return from my travels. In an effort to scratch the itch that always comes up for me this time of year, I turned to my favorite sportswriter and his new book, the aforementioned 869-page behemoth, to do the trick.
The Baseball 100 (2021) by Joe Posnanski — the self-described “writer of sports and other nonsense” — is characterized by the publisher as “a magnum opus…an audacious, singular, and masterly book that took a lifetime to write.” This is Joe’s intimate and very personal look at baseball history through the lives of the 100 greatest players of all time. It is pure baseball bliss, especially when one is missing the most important games of the season, or when your team decided to tank and recorded the most losses in MLB in 2022, or when your team looks to repeat that feat next year and perhaps the year after that…or, well, you get the point.
I needed this.
Joe originally wrote this countdown of the 100 greatest players in baseball history over a 100-day stretch for the web pages of The Athletic (which comes with my NY Times subscription.) I had read several over that time, but it is much more satisfying in this compendium. And the rankings are important — and instantly give the reader a chance to argue with Joe, which he encourages. But they serve the larger purpose of providing this talented artist and lifelong fan with a chance to explore baseball’s rich, deep, diverse, and at times challenging history. A history that — like all history — is under construction.
Posnanski works to ensure that baseball’s shameful history of segregation, relegating many of the game’s greats to the Negro Leagues, is addressed in multiple ways, including with rich descriptions of the best of those teams in their rightful place among the 100. Players everyone has heard of, like Satchel Paige, and ones more people should know, like Oscar Charleston.
It is in his description of Charleston that Posnanski explains how his rankings came to take the form they have in this book. He talks about the fairly intricate formula he uses to set the rankings, and then some of his personal quirks that set the players in certain places (e.g., #56 for Joe DiMaggio for his historic 56-game hitting streak; #42 for Jackie Robinson for his uniform number, the most famous in baseball). But mostly he wants these rankings to “give this book shape and spark a few feelings.” And they do.
I happen to strongly agree with his number 1 ranking, but I know others who would disagree.
Early on we learn why Roberto Alomar, who comes in at #97, is included, when Barry Larkin, who had an almost identical slash line for his career, is not. But Larkin had only four seasons where he played in 150 games, while Alomar had eight such seasons. As Joe says, “one of the most underrated talents in baseball, and in life, is just showing up.”
There is so much to mention in this book that is wonderful. I love the small details, like the fact that the great hitter Tony Gwynn faced Hall-of-Famer Greg Maddux 107 times in his career and never struck out. That’s incredible. Maddux struck out more than 3,300 batters and faced 11 different batters 100 or more times in his career, including Hall of Famers Jeff Bagwell, Barry Larkin, Craig Biggio, and non-Hall of Famer Barry Bonds. “He struck them out a combined 169 times. But he never struck out Tony Gwynn.”
Speaking of Maddux, Joe includes a discussion around how good a pitcher Clayton Kershaw is in the twenty-first- century game compared to Greg Maddux dueling with the juiced hitters of the nineties. And yes, speaking of juiced hitters, Barry Bonds gets full consideration and inclusion, but Joe does it in his inimitable way. He writes two stories — one for Bonds fans and one for Bonds critics. As he says, “If you veer into the wrong section, you do so at your own peril. That’s just the deal with Barry Lamar Bonds.”
I also love the stories that make me cry. Many of those involve fathers and sons. Like Cecil and Carlton Fisk, and the opportunity Carlton had — when making his Hall of Fame induction speech — to finally say to his dad that on this day he would be known as “Carlton Fisk’s father” instead of how Cecil usually phrased it, that “Carlton was his son.” It’s a great book that can make you cry, on multiple occasions, while flying through the night over the Pacific Ocean.
This is a wonderful baseball treasure. So good, it can’t even be diminished by the inclusion of a foreword by my least favorite baseball pseudo-intellectual, George Will. He even gets it right when he writes, “Posnanski must already have lived more than 200 years. How else could he have acquired such a stock of illuminating facts and entertaining stories about the rich history of this endlessly fascinating sport?”
Joe’s introduction is worth the book’s hefty price tag, as he talks about his mother, Frances Posnanski, who came to the United States in 1964.
In her entire life, I suspect that my mother has not watched a complete inning of baseball. I don’t mean in a row; I’m talking cumulatively. I sincerely doubt that she has actually seen three baseball outs.
But while she never watched baseball herself, she did help a nine-year-old Joe collect and coordinate the complete set of 1976 Topps baseball cards. She could never resist the joy of organizing, even if it involved baseball cards.
And she was probably the only person to ever call loveable Boog Powell a “gantse macher” which “is Yiddish for ‘big shot,’ but not really; like all Yiddish terms it’s more sarcastic than that, more like ‘Ooh, looks who’s such a big shot.'”
All of which sets up his closing beautifully.
It reminds me of another baseball moment I shared with my mother, this one after I had my first-ever baseball story published in the local newspaper.
“I read your story,” my mother said that morning. “And it was very good. But I have one question.”
“In here, you talk about this team scoring an unearned run.”
“Who are you,” my mother asked, “to decide whether a run was earned or unearned?”
Who am I, indeed? I hope you enjoy.
If you love baseball and want to learn more about baseball history than you could possibly know, read The Baseball 100. You can send me your thank you note once you’ve finished.
More to come…
This Weekly Reader features links to recent articles, blog posts, or books that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy. I hope you find something that makes you laugh, think, or cry.
Image of baseball field and ball by Cindy Danger Jones on Pixabay.
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My sister Carol, the librarian, sent a note to her brothers and sisters recently. It read:
“Today I was working my way through an adult nonfiction cart and came across ”The Baseball 100.” I read a bit about it, looked at the reviews, and then decided to put an order in for our library. That’s when I saw the note below! Someone’s watching your reviews, David!! I added the words after the *. Carol
The note in the library’s order cart read:
“Recommended by David Brown (Carol Ghattas’s brother) lg * LOL of course he did. He loves baseball!”
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