April 26, 2017

“Baseball is a Funny Game” by Joe Garagiola

April 22, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

GaragiolaWhen Joe Garagiola’s first book, Baseball Is a Funny Game, was published in 1960, an era of the national pastime was coming to an end. A gentle breeze of change had begun wafting over the landscape of baseball in 1953, when the Boston Braves, conceding the Hub’s hegemony to the Red Sox, decamped for Milwaukee and yearly attendance north of 2 million. The magnates naturally took note of the ringing of the registers and the St. Louis-to-Baltimore transfer followed one year later, then the Athletics’ exodus from Philadelphia to Kansas City the year after that.

Still, the basic structure of the game remained: eight teams in each league playing each other 22 times per season with the best team in each league playing the best-of-seven for the world title. Thus one might make a case that 1960 was the last real season, for just around the corner was an expanded league, an expanded season, an expanded strikezone, a lowered pitching mound, divided leagues, playoffs, the loathsome designated hitter, and so forth.  So the game that Garagiola wrote of was, in a sense, already part of the past with the vast changes on the horizon.

Over and above the significant structural changes in the offing, many of the peripherals described in the book would be seen as outmoded by readers today. For example, for MLB’s first hundred-odd years it was not unusual for clubs to keep a man on the roster solely for his ability to shout creative insults at opposing players. ‘Bench jockeying’ is extinct now; most players are, from the perspective of 1960, disgustingly buddy-buddy. Similarly, the rule against fraternizing with players on opposing teams is today ignored. Back in the day you might well find your pay envelope lighter simply for saying ‘hello’ to your frat brother while warming up before the game. And no one, but no one, plays ‘pepper’ anymore. This is a game where one player taps the ball towards three or four teammates from a distance of a few feet, the idea being to hone reflexes.

But in 1960 the preponderance of baseball literature was still mired in a sort of kid friendly whitewash, and so Garagiola’s book was seen as something of a breath of fresh air; a witty, irreverent collection of stories and some inside info about how the big leaguers played and approached the game. For example, before there was much in-depth coverage of either the game itself or its fine points, fans were largely in the dark as to what might be said in a pre-game clubhouse meeting, or on the mound in a tight situation. Garagiola (or his ghostwriter) takes the reader through these kinds of situations with numerous anecdotes and funny stories which might surprise the younger set.

Several are devoted to knockdown pitches and beanball wars, all but unknown today since umpires gained mind-reading powers. (Although there are still some old school pitchers who will come inside with purpose pitches against an opposing batter having particular success or if the opposing pitcher has ‘shaved’ a few teammates.) Also in abundance in the book are stories of hard takeout slides at second or bowling over the catcher to score a run. These may look anachronistic to today’s readers since rules were put in place mandating a tippy-toe approach to the plate.

The bulk of the book is a look at the game as it was played in what might be considered the last ‘pure’ season. The roles of wives, umpires, front office personnel, scouts (much more important in the pre-draft era; that is, prior to 1965) are examined mostly through the retelling of rather well worn chestnuts, with some more recent tales referencing Garagiola’s playing days with the Cardinals, Giants, Cubs, and Pirates. The author’s tenure on the 1952 edition of the Buccaneers, a notoriously bad team, is self-deprecatingly referenced ad nauseam. But Joe is justifiably proud of his rookie season, 1946 with the World Champion Cards, especially the Series in which he hit .300 for his hometown team. (As compared to his .247 lifetime mark).

He was not nearly as poor a player as he pretends to be today, but a paucity of talent makes for a funnier story, no? The author also includes some info about his St. Louis boyhood, growing up in ‘The Hill’ district as chums with Larry ‘Lawdie’ Berra, better known today as Yogi.

Originally published 1960 by Lippincott, Baseball Is a Funny Game is an entertaining read. While it has dated significantly, it is a valuable snapshot of the game at the close of a long period of stability and growth (yes, and stodginess and racism too) which began with the ‘live ball’ revolution of Ruth and ended with this last pre-expansion year of 1960. It documents a time in the game irretrievably lost, but fondly to be remembered by millions of fans past and present as the template upon which a love of the national pastime was nurtured.

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