Book Review – The Long Ball
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
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.
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
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.”
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.
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
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
forget, for a moment, Pudge’s homer. Instead go back to the scoreless
early inning of game five of that same series.
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.
Long Ball, by