I’m going to start with melancholy. On the antepenultimate page of The Baseball 100, I started feeling a profound sadness. Now, you don’t get 820-odd pages into a book if you don’t like it; it wasn’t a sadness of disappointment. It was a feeling that has accompanied me a handful of times in my life (near the end of the Harry Potter books, during the movie Black Panther, right near the end of Pride & Prejudice, the end of Ron Chernow’s Hamilton biography… surely there’ve been others, though) when I start to mourn the loss of a thing that’s not yet over. I was reading those words about the #1 ranked player, and I was sad to leave the world of the book. I didn’t want to stop reading Posnanski’s prose. I didn’t want to stop hearing the stories of ballgames and childhoods and the way the game has changed and the ways it’s remained the same. I wanted just to be in the moment… which took me, rather profoundly, out of the moment.
But, damn it all, I couldn’t help myself. I couldn’t shut the book to let it drag out. Posnanski’s writing is just too good.
OK, so all the mea culpas here – I’ve been pretty absent from the site for a few months. Life is busy, what can I say? Sometime after the World Series, I will get some season-end awards vote posts up. But first, I want to share my review of this book with you all.
I read The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski. I read it all. Every word on every page. Cover-to-cover.
This alone would be an accomplishment.
Of course, had I not contracted COVID last week* and spent the past five days quarantining separately from my wife and son, I’d probably only be halfway… but that’s life. Here’s my review of the book.
*I’m feeling fine; thankfully, I was double-vaxxed (Moderna) and have had very mild symptoms. My wife and son are negative, though, so it’s making for a weird home environment right now!
The Baseball 100 might not be the best baseball book ever written, but it’s certainly the best one I’ve ever read. Whatever your angle on baseball, there’s something for you. If you love stats, you’ll be pleased to know that Posnanski regularly relates stories about his friendship with Bill James, and Tom Tango was a consultant on the book to help Posnanski clarify his rankings. If you love history, you’ll appreciate Posnanski’s insights into the early days of the 20th century. He did a huge number of tracers on stories and quotations to dig to the bottom of where they came from. Spoiler: a lot of people didn’t say the things they said. (That’s a spoiler for the Yogi Berra section; I assume you recognize the bastardized quotation.) If you are a father or a son, you’re going to meet the best and the worst of both, because that might just be the theme of the book, as, other than the game of baseball, stories of players’ fathers may just be the most common thing mentioned in the book.
The book includes nuanced takes on race in baseball (which, next to fathers and sons, may be the next-most frequently-mentioned topic of conversation; it’s unavoidable when you tell baseball’s history). Other books have done nuance on race and baseball; other books have done nuance on fathers and sons. But did you want to read a nuanced take on Alex Rodriguez, or Roger Clemens, or Barry Bonds? Have you ever wanted to know how someone takes the story of Ty Cobb and tries to find a real person, not just a caricature? Are you young enough, like me, to think of Pete Rose as a fat and bitter old man who was once a singles hitter that Baby Boomers inexplicably love? Well, get ready to see all the shades of these players.
Because, more than anything else, what Posnanski does is tell stories about players. He makes you connect to them. He pulls you in to players you’ve loved and makes you look beyond the legends. He pushes you to connect with the guys you’ve hated – whether because of their conduct, or just because they happened to be drafted by the wrong organization – and empathize with them. That doesn’t mean, in Posnanski’s book, that you have to root for them, or excuse them, much less like them. But he begs you to understand them. In the course of 100 essays (roughly 8-pages each, which doesn’t sound like much until you hold the dang book in your hands) on these players, each of whom is worthy of (and nearly all, if not all, of whom have actually had entire) biographies, Posnanski makes you feel them all. He takes you to the game that we all love, and brings it alive in print – a talent not everyone possesses.
The worst moments of the book are when Posnanski decides to stop being Posnanski. Every once in a while, he goes off on a Bill-James-like tangent. I always love James’s tangents. You’ll think you’re reading a story about Craig Biggio, but it’s actually about how valuable the “little things” of baseball are. But Posnanski is always best when he’s on-topic. The only other complaint is that it’s too long. Honestly, Posnanski himself recommends against reading it the way I did – cover-to-cover. Read the stuff that interests you. Skip over guys if you want. I do think the first quarter of the book or so is not quite up to the level of the rest… but it’s all good stuff. The only other flaw, really? No Table of Contents. Posnanski didn’t want people to stand in a book store, read the list, and figure, “I got what I wanted. Now I don’t need to read it,” which is fair. But it’s a little annoying as a reader. Of course, you can use the index in the back – that alone is 33 pages long, which kinda tells you all you need to know about the book.
He’s at his best when he’s telling Buck O’Neil stories. (If you’ve read Posnanski before, you already knew that.) When he’s trying to sell you on a Negro League player for whom we have only sketchy statistics, Posnanski really gets you to buy in completely.
To make the recommendation complete, I was going to pick out a couple of favorite essays in the book. I figured, you can always go to a book store, read one of the good ones, and decide if you wanted to read the rest. The problem is, there’s no way to make a shortlist; they’re all good. (For what it’s worth, Posnanski himself said the book really came together for him when writing Carlton Fisk, pg. 124.) If I had to call out one essay, I would say that the Alex Rodriguez touched something in me that I would never have expected. Many of them shared stories I’d somehow never heard before – including one in the Johnny Bench essay that will now be a staple of storytelling for me. So if you want to check out the book, I would encourage you to do it. Best 15-ish hours I’ve spent in a while.