Books

On Sports | Bill Littlefield

A father’s gift, and two master raconteurs

Bengie Molina’s memoir is love story to his parents, especially his father.
Paul Sancya/Associated Press/File 2010
Bengie Molina’s memoir is love story to his parents, especially his father.

Bengie Molina is a fortunate man.

He grew up in Puerto Rico learning baseball from a father who eventually sent three excellent catchers to the Major Leagues. (Bengie played in the Bigs for 13 years.)

Benjamin Molina, whom Bengie called “Pai” (short for Papi), never made it to the majors himself, but according to Bengie, Pai taught most of the island’s boys to play the game he loved. In so doing, he became a beloved member of the community. His memorial service, which Molina describes in his memoir, “Molina,” was a festival of thanksgiving for the life of a generous man.

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As an author, Bengie Molina has also been fortunate in his choice of collaborators. Joan Ryan is the author of “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes,” which exposed the nasty side of women’s gymnastics and figure skating and which was named one of the Top 100 Sports Books of All Time by Sports Illustrated. Ryan might seem to be an odd choice to help with the as-told-to saga of a ballplayer, but the partnership works. In her hands, “Molina” becomes an exploration of a fascinating family, the Molinas, and the culture that nourished them.

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Part of the drama of Bengie Molina’s story arises from his choice to break one of Pai’s rules: Molina divorces his wife. The story of his reconciliation with his father after their relationship was fractured by that decision is both tender and powerful, and it ends with one of the more extraordinary products of Molina’s collaboration with Ryan: “I no longer needed to ride on his shoulders. And he no longer needed to carry me.”

There’s plenty of baseball in Molina, and fans will enjoy getting to know a bit about the only three Major League catchers ever to have come from the same set of parents. But Bengie Molina has said the real purpose of the book was to honor his father and mother, and he has reason to be proud of that achievement.

For his late 2014 autobiography, sportscaster Al Michaels had a collaborator, too. Sports Illustrated’s L. Jon Wertheim helped him with “You Can’t Make This Up.” Their partnership works in part because they are both good storytellers, and in part because a half-century of broadcasting has provided Michaels with a great many stories about the Olympics, the Super Bowl, and other big events.

Inevitably, there is a chapter titled “Do You Believe in Miracles?” Above all else, Michaels is known for asking his audience that rhetorical question as the 1980 Olympics semifinal hockey game between the United States and the favored Soviet Union wound down to its unlikely conclusion.

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In the book, Michaels says, “I know there’s supposed to be ‘no rooting in the press box,’ but this was the exception. It was written once that this was the nine-year-old boy emerging from somewhere within me. I’ll buy that.”

A lot of other people have also bought it, which is not surprising. Whether or not Michaels had planned the line — and he swears he didn’t — it was a gloriously joyous if overstated celebration of one of the greatest gifts a team can bestow on its fans: a triumph that is utterly, deliciously surprising.

Al Michaels’s range has been exceptional. As one of the hosts of “Wide World of Sports,” he did the play-by-play not just for the major attractions but for such events as motorcycle racing on ice. About the only sport he hasn’t covered is soccer. When we spoke recently, he told me he had no intention of ever broadcasting a soccer game, and that he’d never even been to one. He also told me that he’d never eaten a vegetable. What could I say? I told him he should give Major League Soccer a try, and also eggplant parmigiana.

People who care about sports should read journalist Mark Kram’s stories in “Great Men Die Twice.” So should people who care about writing. Here is a bit of what Kram wrote about the Negro Leagues before the Major Leagues shed the poisonous legacy of institutionalized bigotry that had characterized baseball and much of the rest of the culture:

“Only a half-mad seer — not any of the blacks who worked the open prairies and hidden ballyards in each big city — could have envisioned what would happen one day . . . no one was fool enough to think that some bright, scented day way off among the gods of Cooperstown they would hear their past blared out across the field and would know that who they were and what they did would never be invisible again.”

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According to his son, who edited this excellent anthology, Kram, who died in 2002, struggled with depression and panic attacks. That he continued to write for as long as he did is extraordinary, and his writing was often brilliant.

Molina: The Story of the Father Who Raised an Unlikely Baseball Dynasty

By Bengie Molina with Joan Ryan

Simon & Schuster, 259 pp.,

illustrated, $25

You Can’t Make This Up: Miracles, Memories, and the Perfect Marriage of Sports and Television

By Al Michaels with L. Jon Wertheim

William Morrow, 288 pp.,

illustrated, $28.99

Great Men Die Twice: The Selected Works of Mark Kram

Edited by Mark Kram Jr.

St. Martin’s Griffin, 284 pp., $17.99

From WBUR, Bill Littlefield hosts NPR’s “Only a Game.” His most recent book is “Take Me Out.” He wrote the introduction for “The Top of His Game: The Best Sportswriting of W.C. Heinz.”