COVER

THE STORIED GAME

BALL PLAYERS HIT AND MISS AS WRITERS

PAMELA YOUNG July 8 1991
COVER

THE STORIED GAME

BALL PLAYERS HIT AND MISS AS WRITERS

PAMELA YOUNG July 8 1991

THE STORIED GAME

COVER

BALL PLAYERS HIT AND MISS AS WRITERS

For ball players, being articulate is like being able to switch-hit: advantageous, but not essential. As a result, great ball players do not necessarily produce great autobiographies. What is true, however, is that every summer, baseball memoirs become as common as groundouts to shortstop. This year, three very different major-league hitters—and their respective coauthors—have produced three very different books. First up is Miamiborn Warren Cromartie, who played for the Montreal Expos between 1974 and 1983. He scores a single for Slugging It Out in Japan, a lightweight yet exceptionally funny account of his more recent career as a Tokyo Giants outfielder. But Henry (Hank) Aaron, who surpassed Babe Ruth’s career home-run record in 1974, hits another one right out of the park with I Had a Hammer, a searing account of the hostility he faced as one of the first black players in the major leagues.

And then there is Mickey Mantle. Although he won the triple crown of batting in 1956, his memoir of that season, My Favorite Summer, 1956, is strictly a minor-league effort.

Sitcom: When Cromartie played with the Expos, he was, as he puts it,

“a .300 hitter on a team of superstars” that included Gary Carter and Andre Dawson. But when he arrived in the Orient in 1984, a Tokyo Giants official greeted him with the words: “Welcome to Japan, Mr. Cromartie.

You are our messiah.” Through seven seasons, he was called a lot of things— including Black Devil, which referred to his skin color, and “Dame Kuromatei” (No-Good Cromartie). But in 1989, the second-last year of his sojourn in the East, he finished the season with a .378 batting average and was named the most valuable player of Japan’s Central League. Co-written with Robert Whiting, Slugging It Out in Japan -. An American Major-Leaguer in the Tokyo Outfield (Kodansha International, 277 pages, $25.50) is a chronicle of real-life culture shock that sounds like a great premise for a sitcom.

In Japan, baseball—and just about everything else—is taken very seriously. Cromartie writes about adapting to gruelling training sessions and to the small but skilful Japanese pitchers, who “finessed you to death.” His book is a through-the-looking-glass glimpse of a familiar sport in an alien land: players spend

travel time on the team bus watching samurai movies, and during a losing streak sprinkle salt and sake on the dugout floor to chase away demons. Cromartie—now with the Kansas City Royals—includes a chapter on Carter, Dawson and his other Expo teammates. But the most developed portrait that emerges is that of the gracious former Tokyo Giants star Sadaharu Oh, who managed the team for most

of the author’s Oriental career and became a valued friend to Cromartie.

While Oh holds the world record for home runs—868 in his 22-year Japanese career— Aaron leads the North American major leagues with 755, surpassing Ruth’s previous record of 714. But for Aaron, the road into the record books was lined with racist hostility. In I Had a Hammer-. The Hank Aaron Story (HarperCollins, 333 pages, $26.95), he writes: “The Ruth chase should have been the greatest period of my life, and it was the worst. I couldn’t believe there was so much hatred in people.” Variously employing Aaron’s own words, comments from his peers and third-person passages written by co-author Lonnie Wheeler, the book powerfully

conveys the experience of a black ball player in the decades after Jackie Robinson broke the major-league color barrier in 1947.

Bom in 1934 on the wrong side of Mobile, Ala., the player who would be known as Hammerin’ Hank developed his aggressive swing by hitting bottle caps. After playing briefly in the Negro American League for the Indianapolis Clowns in 1952, Aaron made it to the majors with the Milwaukee Braves in 1954. He stayed with the team, which moved to Atlanta in 1966, for nearly all of his career, retiring in 1976 after two seasons back in Milwaukee with the American League’s Brewers. Tacitum by nature, Aaron seemed, as Wheeler writes, “a featureless hero... whose wary reticence off the field was sometimes mistaken for indifference.”

But I Had a Hammer reveals the anger that simmered in the young Aaron when, while in the minor leagues in the early 1950s, his white teammates ate in segregated southern restaurants—and he had to stay on the bus. Years later, during the Ruth chase, he received an outpouring of hate mail, including one letter that stated: “Niggers are animals, not humans.” No wonder Aaron evolved into an outspoken opponent of racism in baseball. The only way to deal with things like fastballs and bigotry, he writes, is to “keep swinging at them.” Boor: Mantle was one of Aaron’s rivals at the plate, but he is no match for him on the printed page. Written with Phil Pepe, My Favorite Summer, 1956(Doubleday, 246 pages, $23.95) is a vapid account of the 25-year-old Mantle’s triple-crown season, leading the American League in batting average, home runs and runs batted in.

Rarely rising above the profundity of a postgame interview (“I never did hit [Braves pitcher Warren] Spahn very good”), the Spavinaw, Okla.-born Mantle comes across as a boor with an undersized brain. He writes about visiting Elston Howard, a onetime teammate and the Yankees’ first black player, shortly before the man died in 1980. He taped a sign onto Howard’s hospital room door reading: “Bring me some watermelon.” Howard, Mantle claims, “laughed harder than anybody else.” Sure, Mickey. Try telling that one to Hank Aaron.

PAMELA YOUNG