Review by George Yatchisin
It took Joe Posnanski three attempts to accomplish the feat that is The Baseball 100. When he finally pulled off the basis of what became this book, publishing it serially on The Athletic website from December 2019 to April 2020, the intro for each entry included boilerplate that offered, “In all, this project will contain roughly as many words as Moby Dick.” For the record, the Avid Reader Press hard cover Baseball 100—869 pages, the Penguin paperback edition Moby Dick—a measly 687 pages. Suck it, Melville.
I must admit, that’s my tone and not at all the way the very level-headed Joe Pos would put things. As for calling him Joe Pos, that’s how he’s known to those who have been reading his award-winning journalism for years, from local sports columnist duty in Augusta, Ga., Cincinnati, and Kansas City, to time at Sports Illustrated when that meant something. He has also authored six books, including one on his hero Buck O’Neil and one about how Houdini became not just a magician, but the Kleenex of magic.
Completing the Baseball 100, though, was clearly Posnanski’s white whale. In a nutshell, it’s his countdown of the 100 greatest players in baseball history. But to think it’s only that is to say Melville’s classic is a book about a big mammal we want to call a fish. It’s the story of families, mostly fathers and sons—Mutt Mantle terrorizing future American hero Mickey so much his son wet the bed until he was 16, task-master Cecil Fisk getting called out by his son Carlton, but only when Pudge was making his Cooperstown acceptance speech.
It’s also a fan’s notes, so much keen attention to individual games, the exact way a batter stood in the box, the precise wiggle of a pitcher on the mound. (And I shouldn’t be writing in past tense, as active players like Mike Trout do make the list—Posnanski, wisely, believes the players of today are much better than most of those in the less body-built past.) Ironically, given it’s about the sport without a clock, it’s a book about time, which cruelly erodes away the talent only youth can give, and so we endure the ache of late-career Griffey Junior or Albert Pujols. Perhaps most impressively, it’s a sneaky history of the last 130 years of the United States: cross continental growth, country-vs.-city struggles, the explosion of media and its bastard child celebrity, labor strife, and most vividly our as-yet unresolved racist ways.
Posnanski includes eight players who made their fame primarily outside Major League baseball, simply because of their skin color. One of them he ranks number 5, only partially as a dare. That this player (I don’t want to spoil the fun of the countdown too much, so I’m not naming names) is largely a mystery even to most hardcore fans only proves his point—what the f— is wrong with us? But again, that’s my anger, not Posnanski’s. Instead, he fervently makes the case for how much baseball excitement white America missed.
He supports his claims building his case on what I can only imagine was a mountain of research (do we have digital mountains?), citing newspaper stories, first-hand reports, even books few of us knew ever existed. For example, his Tom Seaver entry focuses on How I Would Pitch to Babe Ruth, a 1974 softcover from Playboy Press in which Tom Terrific runs through historical, fictional (Mighty Casey), and then-current players and his thought process on the mound for each. Then, there’s some non-Tom penned writing about each player, and great stuff, from the likes of John Updike, Roger Kahn, and Ring Lardner. It’s a treasure, long buried, that Posnanski excavated, like so much of what informs the Baseball 100.
For think of all the challenges to pull off such a tome. First, it’s basically 100 profiles, but you expect people to read a bunch of them in one sitting (the hard part upon first encountering the book is not to jump around for your favorite players). That means you’ve got to come up with 100 different kinds of intros that don’t make someone say, “Wait, which unlikeable rogue did I just learn about, Rogers Hornsby or Roger Clemens?” But the variety Posnanski manages is a wonder, even when he kicks the list off with Ichiro Suzuki at #100 with this sentence: “There are many words we sportswriters use way to often.” (In this case, it’s “unique.”)
He’s a master at working in the boring but important information crucial for nonfiction writing, even statistics, which in large swaths of America are anathema, especially when one gets to more recent inventions like WAR (Wins Above Replacement, which he does explain in a handy glossary). While no game is more about its numbers—DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak, 300 wins as the hallmark of only the best pitchers, 42 on Jackie Robinson’s uniform, most famously darting on the basepaths—the trick is sprinkling them in sparingly. And sure enough, Posnanksi does that, like a fireballer knowing exactly when to change speeds and catch us looking, providing the exact stat that tells a story.
Take his brilliant Yogi Berra chapter, for instance. In ten pages crafted as cleanly as a George Saunders short story, Posnanski weaves together the hilarious history of Berra-isms, Yogi’s stoic GI heroism as part of a terrifying D-Day, Berra’s love watching Derek Jeter play (always the generational connections), and, we don’t realize until the end, 12 italicized passages of Berra’s strikeouts in the 1950 season. Yep, Berra K’ed a mere 12 times that year, all while getting beat up as a catcher, slugging 28 homers, driving in 124, scoring 116 times. Twelve times. Reigning NL MVP Freddie Freeman struck out 120 times this past season.
Of course, even making that crazy point about Yogi’s striking lack of strickeouts isn’t the point for Posnanski. He ends on Berra’s back-and-forth teasing with his fellow Yankee Jeter, human, humor, heart, and the ultimate answer is that we can only wonder at these 100 amazing athletes and their lives.
By the book’s end, the awe we have for these fantastic hundred players is similar to the respect we have for the author. More than anything, baseball is our sport of accumulation—162 regular games a season, six months out of every year, 120 and counting major league seasons, the easy-to-underplay daily excellence needed for a legend to get to the magical number of 3,000 hits (20 years x 150 base knocks). Only 32 players out of about 19,000 have done that.
And now there’s Joe Posnanski, surely setting the sportswriter’s record for sustained achievement with The Baseball 100.