Check out the cover of The New Yorker magazine in 1929. Back then, the future of baseball looked pretty … well … futuristic … as now held up for consideration by baseball’s esteemed historian:
We’ve got some 20-20 hindsight, and nearly a century of perspective: Did 2020 mesh tradition with the future, try new things out of necessity that will stay around, provide a new prism for us to process baseball in light of fandom, boredom, distractions, in what we could control and what we couldn’t?
Or was that whole wild, wackadoo COVID-19 experience just a weird dream based on the virus messing with our circadian rhythms?
Bill James uses his newest edition of the 2021 Handbook — does the cover suggest this will now cost us $340 million in payments stretching 14 years? — that his eperience, printed last November and going to press before the World Series even ended, wasn’t all that nutty:
Despite all of the troubles of the 2020 season, I really enjoyed the season. I don’t mean that I enjoyed it more than a normal season; obviously when this is in the rear-view mirror, not many people are going to look back over the seasons and pick this one as a particularly good season. But I thought they made the best of it.
It was kind of a free play. In football, when the defense jumps off side, the offense has a free play, so the quarterback usually throws a deep pass, because you don’t have to worry about the interception, and, if it happens to click, so much the better.
The powers that be treated 2020 like a free play. OK, this season is a mess; let’s go deep and see what we can make happen. Let’s throw everything against the wall and see what sticks.
And it worked, or at least it did for me. I didn’t like ALL of the innovations, but I didn’t hate any of them as much as I thought I would.
It seemed to me that a lot my fellow sportswriters were just absurdly negative about the season. A lot of writers were convinced that there was no way baseball could get through this season, with the constant high risk of Covid-19 outbreaks. Well, that’s OK; people are entitled to their own opinions, but writers continued to write that and say that even after it was really obvious that they were going to make the season work.
I felt that a lot of writers were rooting for baseball’s effort to stage a baseball season to fail. In the end, every game except two was played—two of the revised, 60-game effort. Good for the commissioner, and good for the players, for making it work despite the nattering nabobs of negativism. And I enjoyed the show.”
During the entire experience, we never rooted for failure. Just prayed, for common sense and safety and a little consideration of how others felt. More than 500,000 deaths later, those baseball fans aren’t coming back. That’s a sliver of the tragedy we can’t overlook.That number is a filled Dodger Stadium times 10. And many of the victims are in about a 10-mile radius of the stadium in areas of the city that were badly affected.
We sensed a lot of things that had to go correctly for any sort of success to be proclaimed. Still, that unsettling sight of Justin Turner sitting in a Dodger team championship photo without a mask not long after he was pulled from the deciding game because of a positive COVID test may sum up our anxiety in one vision.
Later in the James Handbook, Mark Simon tried to wrestle with how to process the most significant MLB rule changes — the universal DH, three-batter minimum for relievers, roster expansion, seven-inning doubleheader games, the extra-inning runner on second base – and came to the conclusion that how fans view all of that “may turn out to be what matters most.”
Simon also tried to conjugate the 2020 season in a chapter called “Major League Weirdness” that processed the “the good, the bad, and the weird. A 60-game season produces a lot of good numbers and a lot of bad numbers. But it also produces a lot of weirdness … (and) this will appear on their permanent records.”
And in our permanent memories.
“The weirdest stat of all is going to be when we look back at 2020 and see a 0 for regular season attendance,” Simon adds. “Weird. And Sad.”
Not to fan any more flames, but another book coming out in March that we tried to extract some perspective is in “Fans: How Watching Sports Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Understanding” (Algonquin Books, 320 pages).
Author Larry Olmsted tries to make the case that the more you identify with a sports team, the better your social, psychological and physical health is. The more meaningful your relationships are. The more connected and happier you are. Fans maintain better cognitive processing as their gray matter ages. They have better language skills. And sports helps us heal after tragedies with community support.
Baseball in 2020 were playoff games in pods with no home-field advantage, some allowing fans into witness the echo chambers. They replaced people with cardboard cutouts zip-tied into the seats that sat next to other sections covered with a tarp and had a company sponsor logo splattered on it.
We get where Olmsted is coming from. But how did fans of the Miami Marlins really bond over watching them postpone game after game because of COVID issues, pile up odd doubleheaders, reassemble a roster of emergency players manager Don Mattingly never met, then somehow make the playoffs based on some fish-out-of-water magic? The entire state of Florida was a Petri dish with a governor who seemed disconnected with all the safety protocols.
Food for thought. Because Olmsted is also a gourmand, whose travels around the world led him to do a book before this called “Real Food / Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating and What You Can Do About it.” So maybe it was better for our mental well-being that we didn’t consume any Dodger Dogs in 2020, still not wanting to know exactly what’s inside those internal casing.
Coming up in April, Paul Hensler’s book “Gathering Crowds: Catching Baseball Fever in the New Era of Free Agency” (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 360 pages, $40) will further examine how fans can stay fans of a team as the players they may have an attachment to go elsewhere. Fandom has been an MLB issue in particular, spread to other pro sports, since the 1970s, on top of the proliferation of cable TV that allowed more games to broadcast to more people and somehow keep the game alive after lockouts and the disappearance of the 1994 World Series.
Nostalgia is a powerful drug, no matter what kind of vaccine we may be in more need of these days.
So as we process the way 2020 changed our annual series of new baseball book reviews that we began as a personal challenge in 2008 – how about, with all the new titles coming out each spring, we pick 30 of them and then post 30 reviews on every day of April? As the pandemic hit in mid-March, we adapted and felt better to launch the series so those who were missing baseball could connect. Need a good book recommendation? We spaced these out and even doubled the fun – 60 reviews in total, going through to September.
For 2021, we are still revising. We anticipate some of its healing powers and, for those who are Dodgers fans, some extra special need to prove last season’s title isn’t just a piece of trivia but holds historical significance for those comparing that team to the ones of the 1960s as well as 1981 and 1988.
It was a special season, for odd and uneven reasons. We’ll seek rhyme, reason and realistic expectations in 2021, as we consider launching this as soon as early March — why wait until April? — and then go into the summer as well since there are many that deserve attention based on the work some really fine authors investing their research and prose. They deserve the attention that comes with trying to chronicle and define part of the baseball experience.
Coming up at the top of the order will be Andrew Maraniss’ “Singled Out: The True Story of Glenn Burke,” a young adult book but so worthy of much more. It lands March 2. The New York Times today published an excerpt.It may just be the best baseball book that comes out this year — a book for these times, written in a way that an audience can better appreciate. Maraniss also has this in The Undefeated recently posted.
Until then, we wait in the on-deck circle, waiting for our turn to stay in the moment.
== Our 2020 list is still available at this link. We’d like to note that one of our favorites from that strong class, “Stealing Home: Los Angeles, the Dodgers and the Lives Caught in Between” by Eric Nusbaum, was recently awarded the SABR Seymour Medal for best book on baseball history.
== From 2008 to 2017, the series ran as blog postings via the Southern California News Group software, and much of that has been dismantled, but can still be retrieved through the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. If you’re interested in titles we did rather than the reviews, we can thank Ron Kaplan for highlighting our lists going back to 2008 here and here. He wrote at the time:
“LA Daily News sportswriter Tom Hoffarth, a sportswriter/blogger for the LA Daily News, has undertaken the task of highlighting 30 baseball books during the month of April. In his first entry on his entertaining “Farther off the Wall” blog (well, it’s almost an anagram of his name), he explains his project:
‘Baseball books by the dozens come out this time of year. And we’re not complaining. Do some kind of Google search, or even on one on Abebooks.com, and baseball would be the sport that has been written about more than any other.
It never seems to run out of material. With the flow of baseball books sliding headfirst into our mailbox, plus the ones we’ve come across on the shelves of the local stores (online as well), we’ve tried to narrow it down to the top 30 books that have come out this spring — that’s the parameter we’re working with here — and we’ll give it some kind of quick review. Only the ones we feel are worth checking out will be included.'”
Ron can be found at his Baseball Bookshelf website and there’s new with his latest post as he’s trying to update his fabulous 2013 book, “501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read Before They Die.” Publishers should be jumping over each other to land this client.
== More background from 2009, here. For 2010, here. In 2011, there was this and that. In 2012, we have bits and pieces. Back in 2013, we had more drips and drabs, stops and starts and stalls. Chalk these up to 2014 here; 2015 there. Then 2016 here and 2017 there.
== How it started? We once explained to Ed Sherman in 2013.
== And thanks to the recent support from Wendy Parker from her SportsBiblio.com, and her recent list of baseball books to look out for, many of which we will cover as well.
== Until then, enjoy some sounds of baseball. Suggestion: Volume should be turned loud so the entire house/office hears it and smiles (especially hearing Nancy Bea Hefley play “I Get Ideas” and the kids in the crowd have no idea what the lyrics mean … but when you really read them, it’s all about that danger zone of falling in love when someone, or something, and all that anticipation that comes with it. That kind of sums up baseball for us in 2021).