Monday, August 22, 2005

Summer Reading List: Forging Genius

Steven Goldman is simply one of the best people writing about baseball today. He's the author of the Pinstriped Bible/Blog for the YES Network's website, he's an author of the Baseball Prospectus 2005 annual and has a column, You Could Look It Up which he does for BP's website. As if all that weren't enough, he also writes content for the New York Sun, and has suffered the trials of Job as writer/editor/mid-wife of Prospectus' upcoming book, Mind Game: How the Boston Red Sox Got Smart and Finally Won a World Series.

What sets Steven apart from most folks writing about baseball online is that he's a historian first and a baseball writer second. So it's appropriate that his first baseball book is a bio of legendary manager Casey Stengle, focusing on his career up to and including his first season with the Yankees, 1949.

Forging Genius: The Making of Casey Stengel, starts with 1949, and the announcement that Stengel has been retained by the Yankees. Casey was not exactly welcomed to the Pinstriped Family with open arms. This echoes to the events of 47 years later, when the Yankees hired Joe Torre after popular incumbent Buck Showalter quit/was forced out, and the headlines read, "Clueless Joe." As Goldman quotes, the fourth estate's attitude to Stengel's hiring was: "Is this serious? Are they really going to put a clown in to run the Yankee operation?"

Like Torre, Stengel was judged by those writers primarily for his sub-par career record--developed, in Stengel's case, by managing inferior clubs such as the mid 1930's Brooklyn Dodgers and the late '30s and early 40's Boston Braves. Goldman's thesis is that those losing experiences--along with Casey's minor league managing assignments and playing career--shaped Stengel into exactly the kind of manager that the Yankees needed as they made the difficult transition from DiMaggio to Mantle.

Step by step, we see Casey learn the value platooning from his own experiences as a player, we find him learning under the tutelage of Wilbert "Uncle Robby" Robinson and John McGraw, and we see him begin to formulate his managerial style in the face of near-bankrupt owners, prima-donna star players, extreme baseball environments, and most notably under the crushing weight of repeated losing.

The best thing about the book is that Goldman is fluent in his subject, and is able to immerse the reader in baseball of another era. You'd think the author was in his seventies rather than his thirties, based on his vivid descriptions players, ballparks and execs long gone from the face of this earth. Goldman's facility with the material makes the story move along as if on rails.

Unlike the popular treatment of Stengel, Goldman doesn't over-emphasize Stengel's humor or off-the-wall antics. He shares a number of these anecdotes with the reader, but is careful to put the humor in context, as the reaction of a bright and competitive mind to the boredom of non-competitive ballclubs.

There are only a couple of criticisms that I can make of this book. The first is, that on occasion, Goldman is too adept with his material. He shuffles through the rosters of the 1940 Braves and 1934 Dodgers like a dealer at the Belaggio, and if you don't know your Ken Loenecke from a Whitey Wittleman, then you might be in for a moment's confusion, here and there.

The other complaint--and this is one of the nicest complaints that there is--is that I wish there had been more of this book. Stopping the action at 1949, and the first of Stengel's World Series Championships, puts Goldman in good position to follow up this book with one or more forays into Stengel's later career. Given how good Forging Genius is, I'd buy those books sight-unseen. But after all that time spent watching Casey learn the lessons of his pre-Yankees career, I wanted more of seeing those lessons applied.

Nonetheless, Forging Genius is a most satisfying reading experience, and required reading if you have any interest in the great Yankee teams of the mid 20th Century. Very highly recommended.

If you like reading an excerpt before clicking to purchase, Alex Belth published one over at Bronx Banter, which you can read here and here.

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