Gimme the Funk Any Old Time

I don’t enjoy major league baseball much anymore. The pandemic of strikeouts has infected the game experience on every level. Hitting and fielding fundamentals have largely vanished. TV broadcasts are dreadful, two-or-three person blabfests that barely follow the action on the field. Whether they’re having a good year or not, the Yankees continue to be a shameless obsession of the national networks. The number of teams in the postseason has become absurd and is making the regular season more irrelevant, and the Manfred Man on second base in extra innings is a complete joke. Residents of Iowa, where the Field of Dreams Game has been hyped two years running, are unable to watch six different clubs on TV thanks to idiotic blackout restrictions. Finally, we have MLB’s growing encouragement of gambling on their games, making Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson’s non-inclusion in the Hall of Fame even more absurd.

So what’s left for the old school fan? Vintage radio and TV broadcasts on YouTube do the trick, as so simulation games, and thankfully, a number of great new baseball books every year. Recently I finished two fine, eye-opening biographies, both spotlighting the black baseball experience of the 1970s and 1980s, when contact hitting and speed made games continually thrilling. Cobra, by Dave Parker and Dave Jordan (University of Nebraska Press) and Rickey by Howard Bryant (Mariner Books) document everything you need to know about two of the best ballplayers in the last fifty years—in completely different ways.

Parker’s book is an autobiography, covering his 19-year all-star career with six teams, mostly the Pirates and Reds—and though the tome is longer than it probably needs to be, it’s an R-rated, hilarious, and decidedly human tale of an athlete’s struggles and eventual triumph despite physical ailments, racial tensions, and the cocaine era. Growing up in Cincinnati and headed for a career in pro football, Parker realized he was also very good at baseball, and after being drafted by the Pirates, his big size and swatting skills pushed him up through the organization until his rookie year in 1973. Seven All-Star Game appearances, two batting titles, an MVP award and World Series title with the ’79 Pirates later, Parker left behind a winning legacy, and was remembered as a great teammate who would always give his all even when hurt.

Thanks to co-writer Dave Jordan’s smooth transcribing and editing, Cobra has an entertaining flow that begins with a tense drug-era memory, then flashes back to Parker’s childhood and builds through the years, taking the reader into the tight Pittsburgh clubhouse and his encounters with Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, and Dock Ellis, among many others. The “brotherhood” of the Bucs is certainly the anchor of the tale, in a time when Pittsburgh was the first team to field an all-black and latino lineup, and with its largely white fan base often having a problem filling Three Rivers Stadium. Parker never flinches from telling the reader “how it was”, and we come away with new admiration for a player I always liked but didn’t fully appreciate. Cobra is a rich, revealing ride.

Rickey Henderson, on the other hand, was the greatest leadoff hitter in baseball history, and someone whose uncanny base-stealing (1,406 all-time), and on-base abilities (2,129 unintentional walks and 2,295 runs scored) never fail to amaze me. He played 24 seasons for nine different teams. He led off a game with a home run 81 times (54 is the next highest on the list). What’s remarkable about reading Harold Bryant’s biography is how unappreciative the media and baseball world were of Rickey for most of his career. 

Long before players began pounding their chests after home runs, pointing to the sky and pimping singles, Rickey Henderson was considered a “hot dog” for merely pinching the front of his jersey when trotting around the bases. When he went from Oakland to the Yankees in 1985 and refused to spend time with the ravenous New York press in spring training, they began a five-year campaign to crap on him in the papers, label him “selfish” and lazy” and basically drive him out of town and back to the Athletics, where he instantly helped them win a World Series in 1989. Then he went to Toronto for 1993, winning a World Series there, before moving on for short gigs with seven other teams. By that time a lot more GMs were fond of him, and knew his unique skills could help their clubs.

Bryant’s prose meanders and repeats itself at times, and when he misspells Bobby Murcer’s name as “Mercer” three times in one paragraph, it made me pine for the old days when copy editors were actually employed. Still, his opening chapters documenting the westward movement of black families from the Midwest and South to Oakland—and eventually an all-star crop of great black players like Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Joe Morgan, and Rickey—makes for fascinating social history. Bryant paints a complete picture of the various neighborhoods, playgrounds, and schools that shaped these players, and what the city meant to them. It’s no mystery why Rickey signed to play for Oakland four different times. 

Since then, the NBA has clearly replaced baseball as the major sport of choice for black athletes, and far little attention has been paid to the rich, multi-racial 1970s and ‘80s. After Cobra excelled with his “brothers”, Henderson created his signature “Rickey-style” and didn’t care what anyone thought of it. Above all else, the little man had supreme confidence to match his blistering talent, and in his prime it was impossible to keep him off the bases or from stealing them. The only time Rickey struck out more than 100 times in a season was 1998, with 114 whiffs. Last year? 94 major league players struck out more times than that. I’ll take those past decades of baseball any day of the week, and reading these two books confirmed it even more.

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