Book Review – The Long Ball

By: Randolph Giudice
Oahu Island News

It’s one of the most famous photographs in baseball history: The Red Sox’s Carlton “Pudge” Fisk captured in mid-hop, watching his twelfth inning home run stay fair as it hit the meshing of the foul pole at Fenway Park to end game six and tie the 1975 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. But for sport writers looking to unlock the real intrigue of the ‘75 baseball season, this photo of Pudge is a deceptive symbol. For that year the rules of baseball, not to mention the meaning of the uniform, would change forever.

In The Long Ball, Pudge’s Olympian swat stands as a glorious footnote in Tom Adelman’s fantastic re-imagining of that unprecedented season. While reading it, an unexpected thought might strike you: This may the best book on baseball ever written.

It’s no surprise that most sports writers treat baseball as the last surviving American mythology. Even David Halberstem led off his classic baseball history, The Summer of ’49 with a quote from Power of Myth author, Joseph Campbell. It makes sense. After all, most American legends have come out of baseball in the last one hundred years. And for many, 1975 was the last magical season, when baseball’s owners were as colorful as its players.

At the center of the struggle for the 1975 World Series, were two teams that were opposites in every way: The snarling, unkempt, yet brilliant Boston Red Sox against the unstoppable “Big Red Machine”, The Cincinnati Reds. The stakes? Adelman puts it simply, “Cincinnati represented the future; Boston, the past. They collided in 1975.”

The future in 1975, it turns out, was free agency. Before that, the desires of owners held sway over those of their players. But in 1974, James “Catfish” Hunter, “a country bumpkin” of a pitcher with “rock star clothes” was allowed – courtesy of a legal decision earlier that year – to be traded from the Oakland A’s to the New York Yankees for the largest sum of money ever paid to a ballplayer.

With sentences more at home on a telegram then in a sports book, The Long Ball reads like an AP wire from Mt. Olympus. And it’s impossible to put down.

Here, team rosters resemble character lists in a Shakespearean play or the names in the Greek pantheon. There’re the reigning kings: The indomitable Pete Rose, the golden athlete, Johnny Bench, the walking quote, Bill “Spaceman” Lee, and the grateful lightning bolt hurler, Luis Tiant. Adelman manages the cast down to the very last moments of post-season, glorifying in the details, even inventing – based on research, mind you – the thought processes of some of the greatest figures in baseball. At the book’s conclusion, you’re thinking Adelman could write about toasters and have everyone burning their bread as the new American pasttime.

So, forget, for a moment, Pudge’s homer. Instead go back to the scoreless early inning of game five of that same series.

Adelman chooses the worst vantage point for his narrative, fifty feet above Boston’s Lansdowne Street, five hundred feet from home plate in Fenway Park. Here, the fans can barely see anything. They’re just waiting for something to happen. But in Adelman’s hands the moment of expectation feels like a grand slam.

The Long Ball, by Tom Adelman
Little, Brown & Co., 360 pages