Here Comes the Judge!

We’re living in an age where TV shows—American Idol, The Voice, Dancing with the Stars, You’ve Got Talent, etc.—make one a bit jaded when it comes to the selection of their winners.

Can you say popularity contests?

Hell, my wife has a friend who speed dials Dancing with the Stars, casting her votes for cute guys who dance like Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes.

And when it comes to sports, don’t get me started.

Major League Baseball awards the home team advantage in the World Series to the team that wins its annual mid-summer All-Star game. And the All-Star position players are selected by beer swilling ballot stuffing fans.

Then there’s the most prestigious induction of major leaguers into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Here members of the Baseball Writers Association of America earn a Hall of Fame vote from its organization by simply having maintained 10 consecutive years on a baseball beat.

Problem! Some of these scribes are long since retired and haven’t been to a major league game since the last time a grandchild dragged them kicking and screaming (without their freebee credentials) through the stadium’s turnstiles.  Others, for instance, who may have covered the Yankees wouldn’t vote in a Red Sox player if you slipped them a Pulitzer.

Now, all that said, when I was asked to be one-of- three judges for the 2014 Annual Casey Award, the competition that selects Best Baseball Book of the Year, I was indeed flattered.

In my defense I knew the reputation of the people doing the asking. Spitball: The  Literary Baseball Magazine has been at this business of bringing just recognition to authors and publishers of baseball’s best books since 1983. The CASEY was the first award of its kind and widely recognized as the most prestigious that a baseball book can be given, with past winners that include the icons of baseball literature—from Roger Kahn and Leigh Montville to Bill James.

So when Mike Shannon, Spitball’s editor (a man who has written more than his own share of excellent baseball books), came calling I thought for a second or two and said, “Mike, I’d be honored!”

Again, no contest, a competition with no formal submission process and no fees attached. Publishers simply send a review copy. Then Shannon and his competition staff—-based on their perception of the book’s merits—narrow the field to ten final participants. These ten tomes arrive at the three judges’ homes rapid fire during November.

This year (lucky judges) there were so many good books that Shannon and crew expanded our task from ten reads to twelve. The due date for our ranking was January 16, 2015.

Okay, Mr. Mike bring them on. Hell, I’ve been reading baseball books since John R. Tunis introduced me to The Kid from Tompkinsville in the 1950s. The fact that I’d written numerous baseball articles and published both a baseball novel and non-fiction gave me . . . well, I should know a good baseball book when I read one, don’t you think?

Shannon posted this list of the finalists on his web site (www.spitballmag.com) and as short-pantsed UPS and Fed-Ex drivers made their drops at my front door I perused this impressive gathering.

  • Brooks: The Biography of Brooks Robinson * Doug Wilson * Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press
  • The Chalmers Race: Ty Cobb, Napoleon Lajoie, and the Controversial 1910 Batting Title that Became a National Obsession * Rick Huhn * University of Nebraska Press
  • The Fight of Their Lives: How Juan Marichal and John Roseboro Turned Baseball’s Ugliest Brawl into a Story of Forgiveness and Redemption * John Rosengren * Globe Pequot Press
  • Jackie and Campy: The Untold Story of Their Rocky Relationship and the Breaking of Baseball’s Color Line * William C. Kashatus * University of Nebraska Press
  • Johnny Evers: A Baseball Life * Dennis Snelling * McFarland
  • Mover and Shaker: Walter O’Malley, the Dodgers, and Baseball’s Westward Expansion * Andy McCue * University of Nebraska Press
  • A Nice Little Place on the North Side * George F. Will * Crown Archetype
  • Nolan Ryan: The Making of a Pitcher * Rob Goldman * Triumph Books
  • Outsider Baseball: The Weird World of Hardball on the Fringe, 1876-1950 * Scott Simkus * Chicago Review Press
  • Pete Rose: An American Dilemma * Kostya Kennedy * Time Home Entertainment
  • Rickey & Robinson: The True, Untold Story of the Integration of Baseball * Roger Kahn * Rodale
  • 1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever * Bill Madden * Da Capo Press.

Oh, the listing came equipped with a note reminding us that The 32nd CASEY Awards Banquet would take place on Sunday March 15, 2015, at Crosley’s Sports Bar & Eatery in St. Bernard, Ohio.

Again, working independently (I don’t know the other judges), we would rank the books from “least best” to “best” in an effort to identify the book which makes “the greatest contribution to baseball literature,” literature being defined in its broadest sense.  Five criteria would guide us though our task: literary quality, informational content, analytical content, originality, and artistic appeal. The amount of emphasis to place on each of this criterion was left up to us with a gentle reminder that we should not be influenced by previous books written by the nominated authors as The Casey is not a “lifetime achievement” award.

This, thank God, sounded nothing like a popularity contest at all. This was clearly a competition and the work of the objective. To facilitate the process I set up a Casey File on my computer, listing each read by title, author and publisher. Each of the five criteria would be awarded up to ten points with a (up to) five-point bonus at the end for—in my humble opinion—the contribution the book made to baseball literature.

Designating a well lamped chair in the corner of my pool room I stacked the finalists neatly on both sides of the overstuffed. A tray, within arm’s length contained reading glasses, Visine, sticky notes and a pen.

Let the fun begin.

Oops! Slight problem. Shannon’s guidelines failed to define fun! As I turned the first page of the initial finalist I was reminded that I was clearly not a speed dialing reality show voter or in fact a beer swilling drunk stuffing the MLB All-Star ballot boxes. I was a baseball writer, someone who had experienced what the production of one of these books might entail—from the often relentless pursuit of interviews, the tedium of research and editing to the exhausting task of filling the pages with words that—in the end—make good and informative reading.

I was judging (a word I hate) my fellow writers and would now have to slug through twelve baseball books—page for page—with a most responsible and experienced eye, one that in the end I would hope—for their sakes and mine—made the right call.

I can not reveal my ranking of the books but I can say this about the experience. It was trying, exhausting, tiring, rewarding, entertaining, educational, and in the end a most enjoyable project. And in the end I was quite satisfied with The CASEY’s outcome.

Although the squibs below in no way bring justice to the depth of the works or their gift to baseball literature perhaps they’ll serve as hors d’oeuvres by offering up tidbits I learned about the Grand Old Game.

  • Brooks: The Biography of Brooks Robinsonfeaturing one of my favorite players— among other new insights, informed me that the gold glover was also a hell of a basketball player and recruited by the University of Arkansas to play hoops.
  • In The Chalmers Race: Ty Cobb, Napoleon Lajoie, and the Controversial 1910 Batting Title that Became a National Obsession, I learned as much about the “objectivity” of scorekeeping as I did baseball as I followed Ty Cobb and Napolean Lajoie (with the prize for MLB’s batting average a fancy ride called a Chalmers) as they battled for what became an incredibly controversial batting title in 1910.
  • Reading The Fight of Their Lives: How Juan Marichal and John Rosoboro Turned Baseball’s Ugliest Brawl into a Story of Forgiveness and Redemption, I was made aware of how their fight impacted their futures and how it helped them, in the end live better lives and do so as friends.
  • Jackie and Campy: The Untold Story of Their Rocky Relationship and the Breaking of Baseball’s Color Line is a candid account of how and why the two men didn’t care much for each other and why—Robinson saw the race/integration issue as an opportunity to draw a line in the dirt and fight while Campy’s attitude differed in that he thought the best way to make way for other great African American players was NOT to make waves.
  • Johnny Evers: A Baseball Life sheds light on a career that has been all but ignored and in many cases undervalued.
  •  Mover and Shaker: Walter O’Malley, the Dodgers, and Baseball’s Westward Expansion is a hefty tome wherein the author most even handedly gives us a picture of the man who not only moved the Dodgers to LA but had a side to him that could be quite moving. And may move even the most diehard Dodger fan a step closer to forgiving O’Malley.
  • A Nice Little Place on the North Side not only celebrates Wrigley Field’s 100th year, it ties a ballpark to a city, its politics and populace.
  • Nolan Ryan: The Making of a Pitcher will bring applause for a career that lasted a major-league record of 27 years while confirming that talent and longevity equal Hall of Fame.
  • Outsider Baseball: The Weird World of Hardball on the Fringe, 1876-1950 not only gives the reader a tremendous un-told look-see into the teams and players that were the game’s building blocks (from 1876 to 1950), the author devises a one-of-a-kind grading system that allows us to compare and contrast major leaguers to great players—from African-Americans to overlooked minor leaguers—who weren’t (during those times) afforded the opportunity to suit up in the Bigs.
  • Pete Rose: an American Dilemma addresses the paradox of Pete Rose’s persona and after weighing these pros and cons, enables us to think or rethink the Hall of Fame issue.
  • Rickey & Robinson: the True, Untold Story of the Integration of Baseball is just that: the real story of the two men whose lives—clearly examined by a reporter who covered and knew them both—made America and its national pastime better for all.
  • 1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever tells the stories of these players while underlining the fact that for all Jackie Robinson did to integrate baseball a round of applause is also well overdue for the likes of Larry Doby, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks.

Several weeks ago, on the very night I’d finished reading the final book, I staggered upstairs and plopped in front of the TV. Through weary eyes, glancing at the screen, I noted a young singer take the stage on a re-run of The Voice. Pretty soon Blake Shelton—one of the judges—was going on and on about the merits of the kid’s effort. And suddenly I heard myself say something that probably shocked my wife. It sure as hell surprised me!

“Alyce, I used to think this kind of praise was crap. But you know, that kid doesn’t just have a great voice, that was a very creative interpretation of that song. He pushed the envelope on that one . . . really pulled it off. If I were one of the judges, I’d give him an eight just for creativity, maybe a ten for artistic appeal!”