With its aura of timelessness and its unhurried pace, America’s national pastime leaves ample room for contemplation. That’s why the game has long been the most literary of sports. Each spring training brings more new baseball books than Babe Ruth — the Bambino, the Sultan of Swat, the Caliph of Clout — had nicknames. For readers who love the game, hope really does spring eternal.
Leading off this year’s notable new titles is one about the Babe himself — specifically, the transaction that moved the budding superstar from the Red Sox to the New York Yankees, launching an extended drought for the former and a dynasty for the latter. The story of Ruth’s transition from superb left-handed pitcher to supreme, game-changing slugger has been told many times, but in “The Selling of the Babe’’ Glenn Stout zeroes in on the 1919 season, when the young masher set the first of his many home run records before being sold to the Yankees for a reported $100,000.
Stout, the Vermont-based editor of the Best American Sports Writing series and author of the oversize “Red Sox Century” and “Yankees Century,” brings some welcome insight to the exchange that has been mythologized as the “Curse of the Bambino,” triggering the Sox’s 86-year run of futility. He notes that the Babe had become a disgruntled employee in Boston, going AWOL more than once and feigning injury when asked to pitch, and that Sox owner Harry Frazee was not desperate for money to fund his Broadway ambitions, as legend has it.
When Frazee died of Bright’s disease in 1929, Stout writes, “no one blamed him for anything.” The Red Sox’s lean years, he suggests, should properly be attributed to one of Frazee’s successors, the late Tom Yawkey, who took over the team in 1933: “[D]espite his wallet,” Stout writes, he “never won anything apart from a reputation as a bigot.”
Yawkey’s widow, Jean, was owner and president of the team in 1986, when the Sox came oh-so-close to defeating the New York Mets in the World Series. That Mets team has been the subject of several books, including some new ones marking the 30th anniversary of their Series win. In “Kings of Queens: Life Beyond Baseball With the ’86 Mets” Erik Sherman visits with more than half the roster for the sort of “where are they now?” vignettes that cemented baseball’s weakness for nostalgia in such classics as “The Boys of Summer” by Roger Kahn and “The Glory of Their Times” by Lawrence Ritter.
Sherman is no Kahn nor Ritter. But he does strike up some deep, moving conversations with iconic Mets such as Doc Gooden, who struggled with drugs and alcohol; Kevin Mitchell, who was unfairly portrayed as a thug; and Bobby Ojeda, the ex-Red Sox pitcher who survived a horrific boating accident.
Ojeda clearly has no love lost for the Sox. He claims they didn’t invite him to the 100th anniversary celebration of Fenway. But he does say that former teammates Bruce Hurst and Rich Gedman went into the Mets’ locker room to congratulate him after the series win. “[T]hat is my number one favorite memory,” he says.
The best baseball book of the year was written by a guy who was just 6 years old when the ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs. Jeff Passan, Yahoo! Sports baseball columnist, spent several years in clubhouses and operating rooms to report “The Arm.’’ It’s a close, exceptionally well-written look into the game’s epidemic of ruptured elbow ligaments, and the hard fact that medical science still has no real answers for it.
Passan talked to Tommy John, the namesake of the reconstruction surgery that haunts every pitcher, and the elusive Sandy Koufax, whose wondrous career was over at age 30 due to arm trauma. The author followed the rehab stints of Major League relievers Daniel Hudson and Todd Coffey, describing their surgeries in meticulous detail. And he was granted insider status during Theo Epstein’s courtship of ex-Red Sox ace Jon Lester on behalf of the Chicago Cubs.
Like Stout on the Babe, Passan dispels a few myths, offering proof, for example, that the overhand throwing motion is not inherently unnatural for human beings. “What’s unnatural,” he writes, “is throwing a five-and-a-quarter-ounce sphere ninety-plus miles per hour one hundred times every five days.”
Unnatural, yes. But still beautiful.
THE SELLING OF THE BABE: The Deal That Changed Baseball and Created a Legend
By Glenn Stout, Thomas Dunne, 304 pp., $27.99
KINGS OF QUEENS: Life Beyond Baseball With the ’86 Mets
By Erik Sherman, Berkley, 352 pp., $27
THE ARM: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports
By Jeff Passan, Harper, 357 pp., illustrated, $26.99
James Sullivan is the author of four books, including “Island Cup: Two Teams, Twelve Miles of Ocean, and Fifty Years of Football Rivalry.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.