Thanks to watching The Captain, I’ve been on a baseball kick lately. This past week, I read two really good books that deserved to be fleshed out here.
I’ve always been fascinated with Rickey Henderson, the player. A combination of speed and power made him the best leadoff hitter and stolen base champ in history. I always admired how instead of acting too proud to end his career with some hokey narrative, he kept playing independent ball, hoping to be signed.
I know less about Rickey the person aside from how he would occasionally refer to himself in the third person and how he was considered a malignant presence in the clubhouse.
I also assumed (correctly, as Howard Bryant points out in this book) that a lot of the negative attention Henderson received was due to racism. I remember reading Mike Lupica and William Goldman’s accounting of the 1987 New York sports scene where they quote Henderson’s teammates talking about how underrated he is, likely because he is Black.
Howard Bryant’s book on his life and career pulls back enough of the curtain that I got a full picture of the complicated, complex, fascinating person that is Henderson. Large parts of the book genuinely surprised me, especially how Henderson and Billy Martin were so close. Martin was a notorious racist but he realized Henderson’s talent and he nurtured it. The two of them apparently developed a bond.
All throughout, both Henderson and his career circle back to Oakland and I got a great picture of the bay area city and what Henderson’s background was like.
So yes, all of this is good and worth reading but because Henderson barely participated, I still never got a full sense of the man. What was he like as a father? A boyfriend/husband? It’s strongly implied he was unfaithful. I don’t need Penthouse Letters but I’d like to know more about him than just his baseball story. He was guarded, which I understand and respect. I’m glad Howard Bryant isn’t the jock sniffing hack that some are. But I still feel like I never got the full picture presented of the man.
Still, it’s an excellent book about the man who revolutionized the sport forever and is only now getting his just recognition.
The House that Ruth Built
I’ve been meaning to get to this one for a while. I’ve always been fascinated with the location of Yankee Stadium and wanted to know how it got built (and why). I also wanted to learn more about those old John McGraw New York Giants, baseball legends who have been memoryholed as deadball era thugs unwilling to accept the power of the home run and its impact on the game.
Robert Weintraub does a great job presenting all of this in narrative form, from the dominance of the Giants to the rise of the Yankees to the political arm twisting that made Yankee Stadium possible. There are occasional diversions to 20s touchstones that aren’t really necessary but this book gave me exactly what I was looking for and I’m happy with it.