Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Unhittable! - Reviews

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By Gene Carney, in “Notes From the Shadows of Cooperstown” -- #260, May 1, 2002


When we read about the fifty greatest games or baseball's fifty greatest myths
or someone's hundred best players of all time, invariably some omission gets our
juices flowing. What?! How can they leave out [insert name of your favorite
missing player.] Usually there is a ranking to argue about, if we concede the
list is, well, OK for now.

I wrote the above just last issue, in a book review. Since then, I am mostly through Unhittable: Baseball's Greatest Pitching Seasons, by Gabriel Schechter (Charles April Publications, 2002.) And I am enjoying it fine, even though no omission got my juices flowing. I guess I should complain that the author avoided ranking the twenty-five greatest seasons ever turned in, taking a cowardly chronological approach instead -- but that doesn't bother me either.

Gabriel Schechter authored Victory Faust a year or so ago (I reviewed it in #220), a book that succeeded by focusing on a main character (and Charley Faust sure was a character!) and following him through his career of several seasons, virtually game by game. In Unhittable, twenty-five different seasons are put under the microscope for examination, one at a time, and again the pace is everything. The reader sets it -- they can savor each summer game by game, or skim along.

I'm taking the front cover-to-back cover route, but I'm sure younger fans will prefer reading it in the opposite direction. It doesn't matter. Each season gets the same treatment, and once the reader catches on, they will have favorite features to look for: a full-page grid of stats with the detailed record of every appearance of that pitcher, that special season; a thumbnail analysis of the player (years in minors, majors, wins before and after that year, team record without their ace, runs scored in his wins vs losses -- and lots more); a smaller grid comparing the pitchers five best seasons; another one comparing the top five ML pitchers that year; breakdown versus each opponent; and sidebars with quotes that are not familiar.

And what a menu Schechter serves up! Cy Young's 33-10 1901; Jack Chesbro's dazzling 41-13 1904 (which ended unhappily for this old Yankee); Ed Walsh's 40-15 1908 ... Christy Mathewson, Joe Wood ... the chapter on Grover Cleveland Alexander makes a convincing case for Old Pete as one of the top arms, ever ... on thru the 1930's (Hubbell, Dean, Grove) ... not much in the 40's and 50's (just Bob Feller's 1946 -- Hal Newhouser fans will balk) ... then on into the aces I feel privileged to have seen work, Spahn, Koufax, Gibson ... before long the reader is in the present (or close), recalling Greg Maddux' 1995, then Randy Johnson's and Pedro's 1999.
I was hoping to see Addie Joss make the team -- I guess I did sense an omission, but Addie's career was cut too short, and no one-season wonders were chosen. (Wait a minute, Joss had more good summers than Koufax, and Sandy made the cut....)

There are two appendices to answer such objections: "The best of the rest" (Addie's in there), and "The Best of the Pen" (no relievers rated a chapter -- but readers may be surprised at how often aces like Walter Johnson were called on to get clutch outs in late or extra innings.)

OK, I missed Three Finger Brown, too. All those who would pick Nolan Ryan over Three Finger for a must-win game, raise your hand. See? I am not a big Nolan Ryan fan, even though he was arguably an exciting player, who might toss another no-hitter at any time. And of course I missed him when he retired, because there was no longer a major league player younger than me. And of course I concede him the Strikeout King title. But really, given the time machine to go back and catch a game this afternoon, I will set the dial for Three Finger vs Matty, 1905 or '06. Nolan would be pretty far down my list.

I have written here before how difficult it can be to take readers through a season, without losing most of them. The author has obviously done their homework, have immersed themselves in microfilm for months or years, have excavated newspapers, books and whatever else they could find, and now they have this mountain of names and dates and numbers, and by golly, I'm gonna squeeze in as much as I can! Mistake. The best writers know when to skim, so their readers won't. So what if you sum up a few weeks with a sentence or two? Only a few readers want all the detail.

And Gabriel Schechter does an admirable job, picking and choosing, so the reader gets the feel for the season, with its streaks and slumps and odd events, without feeling either rushed, or dragged too slowly through time. I was surprised at seeing how many seasons that turned out to be all-timers, started slowly: Alexander was 8-3 on May 31, en route to 33-12; Cy Young 5-3 on the same date, en route to 33-10; Feller 7-4 same date -- he finished 26-15; Hubbell 6-3 (26-6!); Koufax 7-3 (26-8 in 1965); Spahnie 7-3 (23-7); and get this: in 1968, Bob Gibson finished May at 3-5, but finished the summer 22-9. Gibson's 1968, with its string of five shutouts (starting June 6 -- he tossed seven more before the season ended), and its shrinking ERA (it wound up 1.12, but he flirted with a sub-1.00 mark into September) ranks in my memory as the single greatest pitching season, bar none.

Schechter calls his book "a smorgasbord of pitching lore" and that it is -- and a tasty one, too. Gabriel is in the process of moving from California to Cooperstown (attracted by our recent earthquake?) and is a welcome addition to our local SABR chapter.

By R J Lesch (Des Moines, IA United States) - See all my reviews

Schechter's presentation of the great pitching seasons in this book is remarkable in that it shows both the highs and lows in each season. Even the most stunning seasons had a losing streak here or a poor outing there. The most remarkable chapters in the book (Jack Chesbro's 1904 season, Warren Spahn 1963, Nolan Ryan 1973 and Orel Hershiser 1988) are impressive not because they necessarily present the best performances, but because they best illustrate the idea that a baseball season is a marathon, not a sprint. We see, in 24 of the 25 chapters, where the pitcher hits a wall of some sort -- an injury, a team slump, a family crisis (the health problems of Hershiser's infant son, for example) and battles through it to achieve a measure of greatness.

The exception might be Lefty Grove's 1931 season, for which Schechter makes the case that a 31-4 record is misleading -- Grove might very well have had an undefeated season that year!

The appendices "The Best of the Rest" and "The Best of the Bullpen" are also excellent reading.

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