It seems almost a shame that two of the best baseball books I've read in recent memory are coming to us at the same time as Opening Day. It seems almost unnecessary to dive between the covers of a good book about baseball when there's the real thing going on just a click of the remote (or mouse button) away. Not to mention baseball blogs, fantasy baseball, the MLB Network, baseball blather on sports radio... I mean, how can true fans find time to read a whole book about the game, let alone two? But The Juju Rules by Hart Seely and The Baseball Maniac's Almanac, edited by the late Bert Sugar, are too good to wait for November to check out.
Bert Randolph Sugar, who died this past March at age 75, is best known as a boxing historian, pundit and general raconteur, who seemed to have been born sporting his trademark fedora and chomping the stogie perennially lodged in the corner of his mouth. But he knew just as much about baseball, as the third edition of The Baseball Maniac's Almanac (Sports Publishing) makes abundantly clear. It's a compendium of statistics, facts and trivia, not the kind of thing you read cover to cover. But the lists compiled here are simultaneously off-the-wall and fascinating. I found myself wondering more than once why anybody had thought to look up certain stats, and at the same time chastising myself for not having wondered more about them.
Did you know, for instance, that a mere three pitchers have won 300 games without ever striking out 200 batters in a season -- and that one of them is Tom Glavine? That the Mets' Ed Kranepool, in 1974, had the all-time highest batting average as a pinch hitter (.486, or an astounding 17-for-35)? That six players have been traded for themselves (meaning they were the "player to be named later")? That of the 11 National League teams in history who won 30 percent or less of their games in a season, more than half of them were the Philadelphia Phillies? I didn't either.
For 380 glorious pages it goes on, each list like a potato chip, impossible to stop digesting once you've started. My favorite pages of the book, however, are the first seven -- Sugar's brief and very entertaining overview of the history of baseball record-keeping from the legendary 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings to the present. Sugar was almost as good a writer as he was a talker, and I regret profoundly that I'll never be able have a drink and talk sports with him while inhaling his secondhand smoke.
I'd also like to have a drink with Hart Seely, author of The Juju Rules (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), although I'm not sure I'd like to watch a ballgame with him. Seely is an award-winning journalist in Syracuse, NY; husband and father of three; and, when it comes to rooting for the Yankees, a bit of a lunatic. The book is part memoir, part how-to guide for every fan who's ever refused to get up and go to the bathroom until the final out is recorded, thinking that a lack of motion and full bladder will somehow help his or her team win. Which means pretty much any serious baseball fan, at least on occasion.
Seely, also known as "El Duque" on my favorite Yankees blog, helps ensure the Yanks win, by his estimation, at least 95 games a year, while rarely getting within 500 miles of where they're playing. He manages this feat by sending positive vibes (also known as "Rizzutonic emissions") through his TV set to the Bombers. He gets some help, naturally, from "the juju gods" -- administrative assistant-level deities who can't or don't respond to pleas for world peace, but do have the power to influence ballgames, pitch by pitch. "I don't watch Yankee games," Seely writes, "I work them. I pour myself into each pitch, certain that my movements, my physical and mental actions, have an impact -- and that somehow, I matter." And with 27 world championships to their credit, who's to say that the Yankees don't benefit from a little juju?
To say I found The Juju Rules funny would be like saying Alex Rodriguez is a tad self-absorbed, or that Aaron Boone's 2003 pennant-winning home run was rather exciting. This book had me chuckling, laughing, guffawing, rolling on the floor gasping for air. I even read passages aloud to my relatively baseball-ignorant wife -- after giving her ample background on things like, say, who John Mayberry was and how badly he performed for the Yankees in 1982, a subject which still makes Seely a little apoplectic.
Interspersed with Seely's 27 Juju Rules (one for each world championship, get it?) is a relatively uneventful autiobiography. Seely had issues with his Yankee-hating dad; he had and has a lot of eccentric, baseball-obsessed friends; he's still married to his first wife; and his kids are, by his telling, not drug addicts or any of those things that make for a riveting memoir. But he's a very fine, straightforward writer, so even the unexciting stuff is never less than entertaining. And I was moved to tears by one chapter, about spending the night after 9/11 with a friend whose daughter was killed in the twin towers. "The New York Yankees became our morphine drip," he writes. "Whenever the pain grew too acute -- and it did, again and again -- we simply raised the name of some Yankee player, like a child picking up a toy, and we discussed him furiously, until each of us had nothing more to say... You really think Nick Johnson is for real? Yes, I do! And let me tell you why..."
Both The Juju Rules and The Baseball Maniac's Almanac can be easily and quickly read in bursts of a few pages. I'm not sure I'd suggest reading them instead of watching your favorite team, but they're great for rain outs, for bedtime reading after the West Coast games are finished and for between-inning glances. Not to mention the perfect, secluded spot to read these invaluable tomes -- that's right, they're fantastic bathroom reading. But do the Yankees a favor and hold it in until Mariano nails down the save, OK?