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Book Review: Campy: the Two Lives of Roy Campanella

campysimonschusterThe last three years have been a major boon for the publication of significant baseball biographies featuring one of baseball’s most neglected positions- the catcher.

The much maligned defensive spot featuring the uniquely named tools of ignorance has come into its own since 2009. For that was the first year that launched a triple crown of baseball backstop biographies with the publication of The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain- the Biography of Thurman Munson by Marty Appel.

In 2010, another all- time Yankee and the subject of numerous books in the past Yogi Berra was covered in a very thorough and excellent biography- Yogi Berra- The Eternal Yankee by Allan Barra.

Now in 2011, completing the baseball biography trilogy of great backstops and not insignificantly the third player from New York, the Brooklyn Dodger great and Hall of Famer Roy Campanella is profiled. Neil Lanctot’s new biography called Campy The Two Lives of Roy Campanella (Simon and Schuster 2011 516 pages) came out in March and is a nice addition to anyone’s baseball shelf.

The two lives of Campanella refers to his life before and after his tragic automobile accident in early 1958 that nearly took his life but did leave him paralyzed, although the book spends relatively little time on that particular aspect of Campy’s life.

Since Campanella appeared to have had several contrasting phases in his life, the two lives might also have referenced his baseball life in the Negro Leagues (while still in high school at that) and his second life in the major leagues for the powerful Brooklyn Dodgers. Perhaps the two lives encompassed Campanella’s status as arguably becoming the most popular black superstar in baseball in the 1950’s after languishing in the shadow of his teammate the great Jackie Robinson for the early part of his career.

Whichever the case, I especially enjoyed Lanctot’s look at Campy’s early years in the Negro League with Baltimore and also his many winters in the Mexican League.

Lanctot also brought to life what to me was relatively unknown aspect of Campanella’s life, his on-going feud later in his career with his long time teammate and former good friend Jackie Robinson . Lanctot discovered that it’s really difficult to know the real Roy Campanella, since he made every effort to avoid any shred of controversy, unlike Jackie Robinson . Campanella’s failure to take a significant stand on race relations Lanctot intimates, may have been at the root of his disagreements with Robinson, although it is also suggested and possible that Jackie may have simply resented some of Campy’s growing popularity, once reserved for Robinson himself.

After Campanella’s tragedy, his upbeat personality and his love of and involvement in the game of baseball kept him in the public’s subconscious until his death in 1993. This three- time MVP should be remembered fondly as not just one of baseball’s all time great catchers but as one of baseball’s all time greats – period! Lanctot succeeds at doing just that.

Lanctot’s book should bring back fond memories for those who still remember those times as well as new insights into Campanella and his impact on the national pastime and Brooklyn baseball in the1940’s and 50’s

Book Review: High Heat by Tim Wendel

This book review is written by guest author CLuke who despite being a White Sox AND a Northwestern Wildcat fan, is a pretty cool guy.

image002 In his new book High Heat: The Secret History of the Fastball and the Improbable Search for the Fastest Pitcher of All Time (2010) author Tim Wendel has gone on a quest for speed. His speed obsession is very specific and as a matter of fact coincides with one of my favorite obsessions- baseball. Tim has traveled on an enjoyable literary journey to find one or in this case the fastest pitcher of all time.

The true baseball fan will recognize the paths that Mr. Wendel will take you down must include such names as Walter Johnson, Bob Feller and of course the Express- Nolan Ryan. What many fans may not expect are hearing names such as Rusie, Dalkowski and yes even Wagner and Zumaya contained in this elite group.

Newer pitchers such as Steven Strasburg and David Price are mentioned as well as sometimes overlooked pitchers like J.R. Richard, Sam McDowell and Pud Galvin (an often forgotten Hall of Famer).

Wendel interviews great fastball pitchers, batters who’ve faced them and other baseball intelligentsia in what is a pleasant celebration and quest for one of the most dangerous elements in the sport of baseball- a horsehide flung at speeds up to and over 100 mph!

One of the more fascinating aspects to Wendel’s book is his comparison of how the speed of a fastball has been measured down through the years.

In the closing days of the 1912 season Baseball magazine convinced the two fastest pitchers at the time Washington’s Walter Johnson and Brooklyn’s Nap Rucker to travel to Bridgeport Connecticut and there at the Remington Arms Company bullet-testing range measure the speed of a fastball for the first time. A tunnel that was intended to be used for testing the speed of bullets was used in an attempt to measure the fastballs of each of the two hurlers. After considerable effort and a consequent loss of speed (per the book quoting Baseball Magazine) Johnson clocked in at 86.6 mph and Rucker only 76 mph. The test probably had some significant flaws however.

Later Bob Feller had to fling a baseball past a speeding motorcycle in attempt to measure the speed of his pitch. Even today with the apparent sophistication of measuring devices Wendel notes that there are discrepancies between radar guns in different stadiums.

All in all an enjoyable book that took me to a few places that I’ve never been before. I particularly enjoyed hearing once again the story of Steve Dalkowski a Baltimore farmhand in the 1960’s who never made it to the big time but may have had the fastest fastball of all. Wendel depicts a fascinating story about Dalkowski and HOF manager Earl Weaver. “In 1962 with Weaver instructing him to throw only his fastball and his slider Dalkowski went on to have his best year ever. In the final 57 innings pitching for Weaver at Elmira, the left hander gave up only one earned run and struck out 110 batters and walked only 21”. He would go to spring training the next year with the Orioles but I’ll leave it for the author to tell the rest of this tale.

I would recommend High Heat as a pleasantly readable and enjoyable romp through the history of the fastball and many of the men who threw it. With this meaty of a topic however, I was a little bit disappointed that the book was only a little over 200 pages and it did seem to be lacking on serious stats for all of the sabermeticians out there.

Still in all this, is a worthwhile read and a nice addition to the library of the true baseball fan.

I’m giving it 3 and a half bats.

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You can pick up High Heat: The Secret History of the Fastball and the Improbable Search for the Fastest Pitcher of All Time at any fine book store near you or order it from Amazon.  You can also check out the book’s blog site.

As an aside, I was intrigued to learn that Mr. Wendel has written a book on the long forgotten Buffalo Braves of the NBA. This one may also be worth checking out if I can find a copy.


Book Review: What if the Babe had kept his Red Sox?


what if the babe

Bill Gutman has penned an interesting and thought provoking series of “What if?” questions related to all of the major sports in his new book: What if the Babe had kept his Red Sox? (And other Fascinating Alternate Histories from the World of Sports)

(Skyhorse Publishing– Paperback 2008).


 Gutman includes all major sports and is sure to satisfy the Sports Historian in your family. He includes such eclectic and intriguing topics such  as “What if Sonny Liston had knocked off Muhammad Ali (not as far-fetched as you would think given Liston’s punching ability) and What if Vince Lombardi had  left Green Bay after two seasons to take the vacant New York Giants job- also  within the line of logic and reason since St. Vincent had long roots to the east coast and specifically to the Giants and their owners . Don’t worry basketball golf and even hockey fans (and you two guys know who you are.) Gutman has something for you as well!


Since the Baseball Zealot is where we’re at, I want to hone in on some of the book’s baseball questions and possibilities. Gutman has plenty of these conundrums to satisfy all baseball fans. Do baseball fans discuss their sport’s history more than fans of any other sport? I think so.


Gutman discusses what the ramifications would be for the Yankees and the Red Sox if Babe Ruth stayed with the Red Sox,.hence the title of the book. (Coming from Chicago I refrain from using just “Sox” to describe New England’s version of hose since I reserve that for Chicago’s team but I digress.)  The author thoughtfully and informatively includes nuggets like not only did Boston’s owner Frazee sell the prized “Babe” to the Yankees he also gave them such players like Herb Pennock (Hall of famer), Carl Mays and others.


Continuing on to other plausible national pastime scenarios, Gutman discusses what the potential impact would have been if the Phillies would have signed Negro league Hall of Famers Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson (The so-called Black Babe Ruth) to major league  contracts back in 1936!


I’ll let the reader discover the many other nuggets included in this book but a couple of other “What if’s” to further whet the appetite are what it would be like if Sandy Koufax and Dizzy Dean and even football great Gale Sayers did not have their careers cut short by injuries.


How about what if John Smoltz never made it to the Braves from the Tigers. (Who remembers that deal?)


All in all Gutman has put together an enjoyable read for the serious sports fan or dare I say the Sports historian. He ha buttressed his arguments with nice accompanying background information and stats and has made plausible summarie son what might have occurred and why. I was skeptical at first at the book’s premise of What If’s but was pleasantly surprised after I dug into the text. A nice nugget to put on anyone’s Christmas list. (At least those of us sports/baseball nuts who frequent the Zealot). 

You can find this book on Amazon or at Skyhorse Publishing


Three bats.


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