I love Kindle Singles, those mini-books published by Amazon. These are works that are too long for a magazine yet too short for a book. You download one for a couple bucks, and can get a terrific read in an afternoon. They have proven that many books are too long -- indeed are just padded-out magazine articles.
And yet The Summer of 43: R.A. Dickey's Knuckleball and the Redemption of America's Game, the new bestselling Kindle Single by Joseph Bottum, is too short.
But before getting into the details, a couple disclaimers: I'm an acquaintance of Joseph Bottum's. I'm also mentioned in the book. Bottum takes issue with something I wrote about Bryce Harper, rookie phenom for the Washington Nationals.
Bottum is a great writer, and it has been rewarding watching him go from relative obscurity to bestselling author, first with Dakota Christmas, his first Kindle Single (which is going to be a proper book this fall) to The Summer of 43. Bottum, a former editor at First Things and the Weekly Standard, is the kind of writer that you'll read no matter what the subject is. He knows how to use strong metaphors, and he's always passionate yet level-headed about his topic. He's also a devout Christian, which means that, unlike secular journalists, he can see an obvious spiritual component where others might not.
All of these strengths come together in The Summer of 43, which tells the story of the redemption of R.A. Dickey, a 37-year-old knuckleball pitcher for the New York Mets. Dickey was a mediocre major-league pitcher who had played for several different teams and been demoted to the minors when he altered his game to become a knuckleballer. He was soon pitching one-hit games and watching his ERA drop.
According to Bottum, the ascent of Dickey has been the key event in the recovery of baseball from the steroid scandals of the 1990s. Yet Bottum never really proves why this is so. Had Dickey discovered his knuckleball in 1990 instead of 2005, would he have done as well? Does steroid use make it easier or harder to hit a ball that travels like a drunk sparrow?
Bottum nicely describes the physics of a knuckleball, and recounts Dickey's rebirth after a near-drowning with the right religious insight. Yet one is left wondering just how crucial to the recovery of baseball Dickey has been -- especially after he got rocked by the Washington Nationals recently.
This is the problem with The Summer of 43. Bottum wants to argue that 2012 is a great year for baseball and signals a return to the game after the steroid era, yet the focus is all on Dickey, and book ends at the All Star break. It would have been wiser to wait until the season is over and double the length of the book.
Bottum also mentions me and my grandfather Joe Judge, who was a star player for the Washington Nationals from 1915 to 1932. But it's only in passing, and this constitutes a missed opportunity. Because one of the best ways that baseball can gain respect after the steroid era is by finally and at long last letting Joe Judge into the Hall of Fame. Had Bottum delved into this, he would have made a much stronger case.
Joe Judge played first base for the Washington Senators from 1915 to 1932. While his stats justify a place in the Hall -- in his 18 years in major league baseball he had a .298 batting average, 2352 hits, 433 doubles, 1037 RBI, 1500 double plays, and was an American League fielding leader five times -- he should be honored not only for that but for what he was.
Judge was not the kind of player, or the kind of man, who drew a lot of attention to himself. Family, friends, sportswriters all describe my grandfather the same way: polite, taciturn, unassuming, humble. A 1925 article in Baseball magazine described him as "the sheet anchor of the Washington infield."
Off the field, Judge was the most sober and even-tempered man in any room. Relatives, players he coached, journalists and everyone he came in contact with or who has read about him all describe him the same way: as a gentleman. It's the kind of behavior that keeps you off the front page and out of the Hall of Fame.
My grandfather's career was between 1915 and 1934, which means it partly took place in the "dead ball era" before the 1920s. He learned to play a game that was about singles, bunts, fielding and defense, not the loud, vulgar, pyrotechnic power spectacle that baseball became in the 1920s, with the arrival of Babe Ruth -- to say nothing of the steroid era.
Unlike Ruth, Joe Judge has never made the Hall of Fame. This might have something to do with something my grandfather published in 1959. It's long been an open secret in the family that the article was actually written by my father, who at the time was a writer for Life magazine. Called "Verdict Against the Hall of Fame," it was published in the June 6, 1959 issue of Sports Illustrated. It argued strenuously that the Hall of Fame was letting in players who didn't deserve to be there.
"The Hall has lost some of its meaning and much of its glory in recent years," it read. My father, writing as my grandfather, named players who were in the Hall for inappropriate reasons.
Players Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance, were in simply because of the ring of their double-play combination, Tinker to Evers to Chance. Tinker's lifetime average is .264, Evers' .270. The article pointed to catcher Ray Schacht, lifetime average .253, and shortstop Rabbit Maranville, who never hit over .300.
The essay then blasted the growing tendency to favor players with more personality than talent: "To be a credit to the game of baseball, a man need not have got off a record number of wise cracks or assembled a record number of feature-stories. There are a lot of colorful palookas."
He went on:
In my day, by the time the infield was finished spitting tobacco juice and licorice and rubbing the ball down with mud, especially on a dark afternoon, the ball would come at you looking like a clump of coal. A great hitter would lay the wood on it regardless of the side it was thrown from or the stuff on it. That same man could steal the base that made the difference. He was fast enough so that the hit-and-run and bunt-and-run were always possible. And when he got back to his position he would come up with a great catch, the great save, the great throw that meant winning instead of losing.
Today many so-called sluggers couldn't steal a base if they were alone in the park. They are not expected to throw too well or run too fast as long as they can belt the ball out of the park when their one moment of usefulness arrives. The idea of being a team member sometimes is lost completely, and what we have is an association of specialist businessmen investing their specific talents and carefully watching their own special interests, upon which they hope to declare a dividend the following year.
Had Bottum cited this article, a kind of pre-emptive strike against the steroid era decades before the fact, The Summer of 43 would have been a stronger argument.
My grandfather would be dead within four years of the SI article. He died after suffering a heart attack while shoveling snow on March 11, 1963. The papers reported the news, calling him "The greatest of all the Senators' first basemen." Columnist George Clifford of the Washington Daily News summed him up this way: "Joe Judge was not a character in the clownish, bittersweet fashion of sports. The stories about him become legends simply because of his ability."
Perhaps the best line to summarize my grandfather came from Sam Rice, the great Senators outfielder. When Rice learned of Joe Judge's death, Rice said, "There was no play he couldn't make."