Tomes For the Holidays: Willie, Billy, and the Babe

As we await, hopefully, a more normal baseball season in 2021, here are some recent book releases to help pass the winter days and make great gifts for your favorite baseball fan, or yourself…



Every baseball fan with even a cursory knowledge of the game’s history will certainly know of the Say Hey Kid, and baseball’s most famous No. 24:  Willie Mays.

Arguably one of baseball’s greatest players ever – even the great Mickey Mantle publicly acknowledged Mays as the best – this new approach to his life and career is a revelatory review of his historic accomplishments. Gee, all  the 1979 Hall of Famer did was accrue 3,283 hits (12th all-time), 660 home runs (6th), 1,903 RBIs (12th), and a .302 average in his 22-year career (1951-73), with 12 Gold Gloves, 24 All-Star Games, two MVP trophies, a Rookie of the Year plaque, and the respect of every ballplayer then and since.

Interestingly, “24:  Life Stories And Lessons From The Say Hey Kid” (St. Martins Press, 2020, hardcover, 354 pages, with b & w and color photos, $28.99) is both a biography and an autobiography, which is certainly unique.  Authored by both Willie Mays and John Shea, the entire book intermingles Shea’s text with paragraphs of quotes by Mays in regards to what is being detailed.  It’s almost like reading a quite lengthy interview with the legend.

With a foreword by Bob Costas and endorsements by no less of stature than the likes of fellow Hall of Famer Hank Aaron and former President Barack Obama, “24…” goes all the way back to his upbringing in Alabama, his days with the Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro Leagues, his lengthy career, and even after the career faded and his legacy was honored, meeting Presidents, and his efforts to convey his love of the game.

“I love kids,” writes Mays.  “I love baseball.  There is a connection, and I’ve tried to make a difference with both.  I’ve tried to inspire others, and I know many people have inspired me.”

Did you know Mays disdained alcohol?  A lesson of sorts with his father kept him living a clean life.

“Because of my dad’s guidance and the guidance of so many others, trouble didn’t find me.  My dad taught me the basics from childhood, including keeping me from drinking, and smoking.  He gave me a White Owl cigar and some moonshine.  I was sick for about three weeks, and he said, ‘You want more?’  ‘No, no.’  Since then, I had, let’s see, one, two, three, four drinks, champagne from 1951, 1954, 1962, and 1973.  The World Series years.  That’s all I’ve had, and each time it didn’t do well with me.”

Of course, No. 24 has been retired by the Giants, but not by the Mets, a promise made by then-owner Mrs. Joan Payson in 1972 when the club made the trade to bring Mays back to New York.  But she passed away in 1975, and her heirs and later the Wilpons have not followed through with that verbal commitment.

Perhaps new Mets owner Steve Cohen will right that wrong.

Mays actually first wore No. 14 when he was called up by the Giants in 1951, but soon was elevated to 24 (last worn by an outfielder named Jack Maguire, trivia fans).

“It was the number the Giants gave me,” remembered Mays.  “A lot of our outfielders wore higher numbers back then, mostly in the 20s, Monte Irvin, Don Mueller, Bobby Thomson, who was the centerfielder before I came along.  I didn’t think a lot of it, but I enjoyed wearing 24, and a lot of guys over the years have liked wearing it.  It’s nice to know that.”

Former Mets outfielder Rickey Henderson actually called Willie to ask permission to wear No. 24 when he joined the Mets.  Mays said yes.

Mays, who will turn 90 next May, also never forgot he was in the “entertainment” business.

“I was always aware that you play baseball for people who paid money to come see you play.  You play for those people. You want to make them smile, have a good time.  I would make a hard play look easy, and an easy play look hard.  Sometimes I’d hesitate, count to three, then I’d get there just in time to make the play.  You’d hear the crowd.  Sometimes you had to do that in order for people to come back the next day.”

Yes, we came back, Willie, day after day.  Thanks, 24.


There is that Brad Pitt movie from 2011, “Moneyball,” about the analytics-driven GM of the Oakland A’s, Billy Beane, who was at the forefront of what the game has become today, but this current version of “Billy Ball” is a far cry from this new “analysis” of “Billy Ball,” a journalistic retrospective of the embattled former manager of the A’s, Billy Martin.

As scribed by Dale Tafoya, who has been on the A’s beat for over 30 years, “Billy Ball” (Lyons Press, 2020, hardcover, 249 pages, w/ black & white photos) focuses on the three years Martin managed the A’s (1980-82), a sandwich job between his numerous stints managing the New York Yankees before and after, but it doesn’t neglect various aspects of his career and previous managerial stops in Minnesota, Detroit, and Texas.

Fiery.  Hard-drinking.  Baseball savant.  Brawler.  Winner.  All apt descriptions of the enigmatic Martin, who was good copy, a good ballplayer, and an even better manager wherever he landed.

Martin was a product of Oakland, born in nearby West Berkeley in 1928, once an infielder on the Casey Stengel-managed minor league Oakland Oaks in 1948, and once was an Athletic player, when the team was located in Kansas City, and where he was dispatched in 1957 by the Yankees in a seven-player trade.  Basically, the Yankees were dumping their second baseman as he was blamed for a brawl that broke out with a number of Bronx Bombers at the famed Copacabana niteclub in May of that year.  The Yanks sent Martin, Bob Martyn, Ralph Terry, and Woodie Held to KC for Ryne “Where are my glasses” Duren, Jim Pisoni, and Harry Simpson.

Cut to 1979, when the A’s were a miserable last-place club at 54-108.  Owner Charley Finley went looking for a manager to help improve the team on the field, but just as importantly, a manager who could put fans in the stands, and Martin fit that description to a T, having just been fired by the Yankees after years of front and back page headlines, both glorious and notorious.

“It was a catastrophe,” said A’s pitcher Mike Norris in the pre-Martin days.  “We were basically a Triple-A ballclub until Billy got there.  We didn’t really feel like a big-league ballclub at that point.”

Billy Ball was now back in Oakland, and it showed with an immediate turnaround season in 1980, going 83-79.  In ’81, the A’s won the first half of the split season at 37-23, and the Coliseum was alive and dancing.

Oakland’s marketing department quickly picked up on the notion they had a star signing the lineup cards and took advantage at every opportunity.

“Billy Ball stickers adorn the windows of the shops and restaurants in Jack London Square, not to mention the majority of the car bumpers in downtown Oakland,” wrote beat writer Ross Newhan in the Los Angeles Times in 1981.  “The lines at the Oakland Coliseum ticket windows are long, and the waiting raises the temperature of the fans who concede that they are happy, finally, to have reason to buy tickets to see the A’s.”

And now you have a reason to read, “Billy Ball and the Resurrection of the Oakland A’s” by Dale Tafoya.  You’ll enjoy the journey.

And FYI:  For those in the New York area who would like to pay their respects to Billy Martin, he is buried in the Gates of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, NY, a little North of White Plains.  Martin died in a one-car crash on an icy road in upstate New York on Christmas Day in 1989.And when you’re there, say “hello” to the Babe!  Babe Ruth is buried literally about a hundred yards or so from Martin.


He was fast.  Very fast.  Some really say the fastest ever.  And yet, you’ve never heard of him.  Or have you?

Steve Dalkowski had a fastball many say was faster than Feller.  Faster than Koufax.  Faster than Ryan.  So fast his fastball was nicknamed a “radio” pitch, because you could hear it, but couldn’t see it.

But you’ve never heard of him because he never made the majors, and his minor league exploits are now more myth than reality.

“Dalko…” is a collaborative effort, authored by Bill Dembski, Alex Thomas, and Brian Vikander (Influence Publishers, 2020, hardcover, 304 pages, w/black & white and color photos, $26.95).  With a foreword by “Sudden” Sam McDowell – who also was considered one of the fastest hurlers of his era, hence the “sudden” nickname, the ball was “suddenly” upon you – “Dalko…” paints a frustrating picture of a young man whose career was derailed by poor judgment and mismanagement, a series of arrests, a terrible drinking problem, and ultimately a shoulder injury while on the brink of being called up to the bigs in 1963.

There is a connection between Dalkowski and the fictional character of Nuke LaLoosh from the classic film, “Bull Durham.”  Dalko signed with the Baltimore Orioles out of high school in 1957.  One of his roommates was Joe Altobelli.  In 1971, Altobelli was managing the Rochester Red Wings for the O’s and one of his players was Ron Shelton, who later scripted and directed Bull Durham.  Yes, Shelton had heard the Dalko stories many times and it is likely LaLoosh was “born” from those stories.

Someday, some screenwriter will take this book and set Dalko’s life to celluloid.  It is filled with drama and spotted with moments of success and failures. There are claims his IQ was just 60.  He had vision problems, which may have led to his wildness.  Strike zone?  He just threw fast and hoped it landed in the right zone.  And after baseball, he just drifted from city to city, searching for resolution.

But before you pay for that overpriced popcorn at a cinema when life gets back to pre-Covid normal, take a “high, hard one” at “Dalko.”



It is arguably one of the most famous moments in baseball history, and yet, to this day, there are still questions – did it happen?

World Series. 1932.  Yankees vs. Cubs.  Wrigley Field.  Game 3.  Fifth Inning.  Score tied.  Charley Root on the mound for the Cubbies.  And the big guy, No. 3, the Great Bambino, Sultan of Swat and all kinds of other celebrated designations, Babe Ruth, at the plate.

That sets the scene, and what happened next is the fulcrum of this entire book.  Ruth kept motioning with his right arm and his bat.  The Cubs bench was noisy with verbal taunting.  And after more Ruth pointing and gesturing, with a count of 2 and 2, the Babe launched what some say was the longest home run ever hit at Wrigley to center field.

Did he call the shot?  Spoiler alert: “The Called Shot…” by Thomas Wolf (University of Nebraska Press, 2020, hardcover, 374 pages, w/ black & white photos, $36.95) serves up both sides of the debate, leaning on the yes-he-did side of the coin.

Wolf refers to remarks by another Ruth biographer, Leigh Montville.  “He called shots all the time.  He loved to create situations.  It was for other people to determine what they meant.  Did he call a shot here?  He definitely created a situation.  He challenged his entire environment, whipped up all parties, then made them shut up.  The specifics might be hazy, but the general story was not wrong.”

Noted Ruth biographer Robert Creamer is brought in and claims he didn’t, but that shouldn’t really matter.  “It is an argument over nothing, and the fact Ruth did not point to centerfield before his home run does not diminish in the least what he did.  He did challenge the Cubs before 50,000 people, did indicate he was going to hit a home run and did hit a home run.  What more could you ask?”

Wolf presents a fascinating study, well-researched and the story of the entire season erupting at that point equally remarkable.  Nearly 40 pages of notes on his sources are included, brief postcripts of the principal players are chronicled, and another dozen pages lists a bibliography, checklisting all of the other books, interviews, magazine articles and other materials used to paint the total picture.

The Babe, no doubt, would have enjoyed the commotion and the attention.


Many ballplayers have earned the distinction of being called “The Captain” by their respective teams, and in New York, there is a litany of stalwarts, particularly over in the Bronx, including Thurman Munson, Don Mattingly, and Derek Jeter.

In Queens, the New York Mets have had only four Captains in their 58-year history, Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter in the 1980s (who shared co-Captain status), John Franco in the 1990s and into the 21st Century, and the author of this new autobiography, David Wright.

Co-written with highly regarded Mets beat writer Anthony DiComo, “The Captain” (Dutton Press, hardcover, 356 pages, w/ color photos, $28.00) is a Mets fan’s must-have, chronicling the life and career of one of the most popular Mets ever to wear the uniform.

The life-long Mets fan, born and raised where the Mets housed their Triple-A club for so many years in Tidewater, Virginia, Wright came to personify everything good about being a ballplayer.  And being a good ballplayer only made the connection to the team’s fan base that much more special.

Wright was a seven-time All-Star, a two-time Gold Glove winner, a two-time Silver Slugger winner, and a member of the 30-30 club.  That’s at least 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases in the same season, kids.

After all 14 seasons with his beloved Mets (2004-18), Wright closed out a productive that was limited in later years due to contracting spinal stenosis, and finished with a .296 average (seven seasons over .300), 242 home runs and 970 RBIs, 196 stolen bases, and the holder of Mets franchise records for RBIs, doubles (390), total bases (2,945), runs scored (949), walks (762), sacrifice flies (65), extra-base hits (658), and hits (1,777).

He played the game the right way (while avoiding the obvious “Wright” way pun), hard, always with a smile on his face, and the respect of all his teammates and opponents.  As a member of Team USA in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, Wright earned another nickname, “Captain America,” with a grand slam off Team Italy.

Wright might never become a Hall of Famer in Cooperstown, but he will, no doubt, join the Mets Hall of Fame at some point when the game returns a little bit back to normal and fans are back in the stands.  With new Mets owner Steve Cohen promising to revive an Old Timer’s Game to Citi Field, Mets fans might even soon enjoy seeing Wright at third and Jose Reyes back at shortstop in the near future.

His No. 5 will be retired – although it might be a nice gesture if the team retires the numeral also on behalf of another great Mets third baseman, Ed Charles, who helped the club win its first World Series in 1969.  Retiring a number on behalf of two players has precedent.  The Yankees retired No. 8 for both Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey.

Until then, enjoy “The Captain,” the Wright book at the Wright time for Mets fans  – had to slip in that pun somewhere along the way!


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