Almost Yankees: The Summer of ’81 and the Greatest Baseball Team You’ve Never Heard Of by J. David Herman (2019)
Almost Yankees: The Summer of ’81 and
the Greatest Baseball Team You’ve Never Heard Of
by J. David Herman
University of Nebraska Press, 2019
Labor disputes should never happen in baseball, but they do. In 1981, the sport faced a work stoppage in the middle of the season, forcing Major League Baseball to cancel games and reconfigure the playoffs once the dispute was settled. However, the big league strike didn’t affect the Minor Leagues, and the Yankees’ talented AAA affiliate took advantage of the spotlight. Armed with a pitching staff that was, in the mind of pitching coach Sammy Ellis, “better…than half the teams in the Major Leagues,” the Columbus Clippers took the baseball world by storm by virtue of being the best team anyone could watch when the Major Leaguers walked out.
Author J. David Herman recounts the Clippers’ 1981 season and the magic that it brought local fans in Almost Yankees: The Summer of ’81 and the Greatest Baseball Team You’ve Never Heard Of. The team, managed by Frank Verdi, was full of guys who would go on to enjoy varying degrees of success at the MLB level like Dave Righetti, Steve Balboni, and Pat Tabler. There were also names that are not as well-known to modern fans, such as John Pacella, Tucker Ashford, and the author’s hero, Marshall Brant.
Herman runs down the list, entertaining readers with stories from the players’ careers but focusing mostly on their 1981 adventures. He also writes about journalists Jack Torry (Citizen-Journal) and Jim Massie (Columbus Dispatch), trainer Mark “Rookie” Letendre, and the Yankees’ broadcast team of Phil Rizzuto, Bill White, Frank Messer, and Fran Healy. Interspersed in all of this are brief memories from the author’s youth, memories of him listening to games on the radio and receiving advice from his dad: “Take life where you find it.”
The Columbus Clippers headed to the International League’s postseason Governor’s Cup, but after six playoff games were called for weather, the IL declared the Clippers champions and ended the season. Herman turned his attention to the bigs, where the Yankees were battling opponents in the American League Division Series, AL Championship Series, and finally the World Series. He fast forwards in his own life to 1999, the Mariners’ first game at Safeco Field in Seattle. To 2007 and the passing of his mother as the Giants play the World Series. To 2013 and a visit with his dad in a nursing home, where he “recalls the feeling of the ballpark and of spending time there with his son,” singing the Columbus Clippers fight song. To 2017 and a more important game to the author than any the Clippers played in 1981—a game featuring his eight-year old son.
Baseball is magic, and Herman masterfully brings that magic to the page. If you want to revisit the innocence of falling in love with the game, read behind-the-scenes stories, learn about the guys that may have been household names in other organizations, pick up a copy and read Almost Yankees.
Pitching To The Pennant
edited by Joseph Wancho
University of Nebraska Press, 2014
They won more games than the 1927 Yankees, boasted five future Hall of Fame players and a future Hall of Fame manager, featured two twenty-game winners, and fielded players who led the league in home runs, runs batted in, batting average, pitching victories and earned run average. Yet after four-game sweep by the New York Giants in the World Series and the most memorable catch in postseason history by Willie Mays, many people forget that the Cleveland Indians were that good in 1954.
Imagine having a pitching staff led by Early Wynn and Bob Lemon, who each won 23 games, and Mike Garcia with his 19 victories and league-leading 2.64 ERA. Add to that effective performances by Art Houtteman and an aging Bob Feller, and a bullpen that included Hal Newhouser. Not to be outdone, the offense featured hitting leader Bobby Avila and top slugger Larry Doby, along with a strong performance by Al Rosen. This was a team that had all the right pieces fall into place all season, until the World Series. General manager Hank Greenberg famously said, “We had a great season. It just lasted four games too long.”
The spirit of that 1954 season is captured in Pitching To The Pennant, edited by Jospeh Wancho, with biographies of each player written by members of the Society for American Baseball Research and monthly recaps of each game. Other articles discuss Cleveland Stadium, the All-Star Game that was played there, and game-by-game accounts of the 1954 World Series. Perhaps the most interesting piece, though, is “A Seven-Year-Old’s Perspective on the 1954 Indians” by David Bohmer, describing the writer’s personal recollections of that team from so long ago through the fog of time.
Pitching To The Pennant is another fine offering from the University of Nebraska Press, a book that delight the Tribe’s followers and educate baseball fans.
The Great Eight: The 1975 Cincinnati Reds
edited by Mark Armour
University of Nebraska Press, 2014
When your favorite baseball team is struggling on the field, it is comforting to reminisce about past glory, especially when the past includes one of the greatest offensive lineups to step onto the diamond. The 1975 Cincinnati Reds boasted a lineup of three Hall of Famers (Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, and Tony Perez), two others that should be (Pete Rose and Dave Concepcion) and a Hall of Fame manager (Sparky Anderson). Add to that a dazzling defensive center fielder (Cesar Geronimo), a consistent hitting right fielder (Ken Griffey), and a slugging left fielder (George Foster), and you have offensive output that ranks among the greatest of all-time.
But the 1975 Cincinnati Reds went far beyond the starting lineup, as explained in The Great Eight, one of the latest offerings from the Society for American Baseball Research. There were the men behind the scenes, such as Bob Howsam and his squad of scouts. Anderson’s coaching staff (George Scherger, Alex Grammas, Larry Shepard and Ted Kluszewski) never receives the credit it deserves by the average fan. The “adequate” pitchers, including Jack Billingham, Don Gullett, and Gary Nolan, are often forgotten when discussing the Reds championship teams of 1975 and 1976. And all of the role players, from Dan Driessen to Ed Armbrister to Doug Flynn—all of these and more are recognized and profiled in The Great Eight.
Month-by month timelines featuring the headlines of each game as reported in Ohio’s Springfield News are interspersed between groups of brief biographies. Other articles speak to the importance of moving Rose to third to make room for Foster in the lineup, a comparison between the 1970s Reds and the 1940s-50s Brooklyn Dodgers, and a look at the franchise in the years after winning it all.
The entire team has never before been this fully investigated. Armour did a wonderful job editing this collection, with contributions from researchers Charles F. Faber, Bill Nowlin, Mark Miller, and Doug Wilson, who is fast becoming one of this writer’s favorite baseball authors. The Great Eight is a worthy addition to the Memorable Teams in Baseball History series, and a must-own for Cincinnati Reds fans.
Banzai Babe Ruth:
Baseball, Espionage & Assassination During the 1934 Tour of Japan
by Robert K. Fitts
University of Nebraska Press, 2013
A beautiful blending of baseball and history, Banzai Babe Ruth engages the reader in the attempt to forge a friendship using America’s pastime. Author Robert K. Fitts presents the events from both sides of the Pacific—the Japanese businessmen who are intent on bringing the Americans to their country for an All-Star tour in 1934, and the hesitations of the baseball luminaries in America.
The book reads almost like a novel, recounting the interactions between Babe Ruth and his Japanese fans, Moe Berg’s purported spy operations, and Lefty O’Doul’s tutoring young Japanese ballplayers. Highlights of the games are also presented, along with statistics and line scores in the appendices. Some chapters barely mention baseball, focusing instead on the political climate of the time and the war.
Banzai Babe Ruth is great for fans of baseball history, shedding light on a little-known subject in these modern times.
Pitching, Defense, and Three-Run Homers:
The 1970 Baltimore Orioles
edited by Mark Armour and Malcolm Allen
University of Nebraska Press, 2012
Every franchise has a story to tell, and a true baseball fan can appreciate success that comes as the result of hard work, even if the winner is not that fan’s favorite team. In 1970, the Baltimore Orioles dominated their opponents on their way to a World Series championship. That domination was made possible by a system of belief that was ingrained in Orioles players from their days in the minors; that system was called “The Oriole Way.”
Editors Mark Armour and Malcolm Allen, along with biographies from the Society for American Baseball Research, celebrate “The Oriole Way” in Pitching, Defense, and Three-Run Homers. This volume is filled with statistics and anecdotes for all the contributing members of the 1970 squad, from skipper Earl Weaver and his “Ten Laws of Baseball,” stars Jim Palmer and Brooks Robinson, to key role-players such as Chico Salmon and Terry Crowley.
In addition to the player biographies, Allen contributes a “Timeline” for each month of the 1970 season, displayed the Baltimore Sun‘s headline for each game as well as a brief write-up. The book culminates with a concise, three-page chapter describing the 1970 postseason. The authors don’t revel in the victory, but present a well-balanced, factual account of how the Orioles triumphed over their rivals.
Johnny Vander Meer’s Historic Night Under the Lights
by James W. Johnson
University of Nebraska Press, 2012
One of the most amazing feats in baseball history, Johnny Vander Meer‘s consecutive no-hitters may never be matched. Author James W. Johnson takes the reader on a journey through nine innings of unbelievable baseball as Vander Meer refused to allow a single Brooklyn Dodger hit. It was Brooklyn’s first ever home night game, Babe Ruth was in attendance, and there was electricity in the crowd. The rookie pitcher was unfazed, and with his family on hand, he made history.
Double No-Hit is more than a story about a single game, however. Johnson delights the reader with anecdotes about other players involved, both teammates and opponents, including Hall of Famers Ernie Lombardi and Leo Durocher. Vander Meer’s relationship with his manager Bill McKechnie and general manager Warren Giles is discussed, as well as the remainder of Vandy’s career and beyond. Johnson examines the pitcher alongside the careers of Nolan Ryan, Bob Feller, and other Hall of Famers. The author argues that Vander Meer’s case isn’t as bad as his 119-121 record implies, but his career statistics are well below Cooperstown standards.
In the epilogue, Johnson takes a look at other pitchers who came close to matching Vander Meer’s feat, the closest being teammate Ewell Blackwell nine years later when he took a second no-hitter into the bottom of the ninth inning. Minor leaguer Tom Drees pitched back-to-back no-hitters in 1989, but one of those was only a seven-inning game. On the major league level, it has never happened since 1938.
Double No-Hit gives modern fans a new appreciation for Vander Meer’s accomplishment. The backstory adds more depth to the game itself, while the post-game history allows you to enter the pitcher’s mind and see his career as he saw it. A great read, recommended for fans of the Cincinnati Reds and baseball history.