Anecdotes are hits in baseball history

May 19, 1994|By Mark Hyman | Mark Hyman,Sun Staff Writer

If John Helyar winds up on the best-seller list with "Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball," it will be for the anecdotes.

Exhibit A: As an infant players union is taking shape in 1967, its new leader, Marvin Miller, calls a meeting and instructs players in the room to write down their most serious grievances with the owners. Pitcher Milt Pappas, a former Oriole, spoke for his colleagues firmly in the grip of the mod generation. "There aren't enough outlets for hair dryers in the clubhouses," he thundered.

Exhibit B: William D. Eckert, retired one-star general, briefly baseball commissioner in the late 1960s and early '70s, had a remarkable penchant for confusing people and events. A notoriously passionless public speaker, Eckert once began delivering remarks to an audience of baseball officials before realizing the speech was intended for the Retired Airline Pilots Association.

Exhibit C: Charles O. Finley ran a cut-rate front office in his final years of owning the Oakland A's. By 1978, the entire operation was down to six people, including a 16-year-old office assistant named Stanley Burrell. Burrell has since changed his name -- to MC Hammer, the rap star, and now just plain Hammer.

Mr. Helyar's book is rich with stories of that type. But it's clearly more than a collection of quotable quotes and front-office trivia.

Instead, what Mr. Helyar offers is surely one of the most complete and provocative histories ever written of major-league

baseball -- as it has played out in owners' suites and across the collective bargaining table. It's a tad intimidating at 576 pages, but considering he begins with Elysian Fields in the 1840s, and carries the story through the sale of the Orioles last fall to Peter G. Angelos, the book is anything but long-winded.

A word about Mr. Helyar: He may not be as familiar to readers of sports books as Pete Golenbock or John Feinstein, who between them have covered every topic but the secret world of stadium ushers. But Mr. Helyar's credentials are substantial. His "Barbarians at the Gate" was a big best-seller. He has built a reputation as a solid reporter covering sports business issues for The Wall Street Journal.

In this book, Mr. Helyar tells his story, in part, as he profiles some of baseball's most influential and, when the author is through, least likable characters. In the process, more than a few myths are exploded.

For instance, he sheds a different sort of light on Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the iron-willed judge credited with bringing baseball back from the brink after the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Mr. Helyar has discovered more: "Under Landis, the morals of baseball were purified -- and the business of baseball was ossified."

Landis, he writes, was among the least progressive men of his day. He said no to lights at Crosley Field in Cincinnati, vowing there would be no night baseball in the big leagues in his lifetime. He said no to a beer company that wanted to buy advertising on World Series radio broadcasts. If it was new, Landis said no.

Other notables appear equally as unsympathetic in Mr. Helyar's narrative. The list is lengthy, and includes former commissioners Peter Ueberroth and Bowie Kuhn and former owners led by the pre-eminent owner of his generation, Walter O'Malley of the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers.

If there is a hero in the story, it is Mr. Miller, the man who brought the players union into the 20th century, broke the reserve clause and paved the way for today's million-dollar salaries. Predictably, the owners despised him and, in Mr. Helyar's telling, spent years calling him a collection of names, not all fit for this newspaper.

This book is not always satisfying. For all its thoroughness, it uncovers few important news stories. This apparently concerns the author -- or his publicist. A press release lists the book's big scoops, including the boast that it "reveals" how Camden Yards turned the Orioles into a money-making team for which Mr. Angelos would pay $173 million.

There's also the issue of sourcing. Mr. Helyar writes in a seamless, tightly organized style more like a techno-thriller than a nonfiction baseball book.

Mr. Helyar provides in the preface a list of baseball folk who cooperated with his reporting. What's missing is something more substantial that connects facts to the sources from which the author pulled them. As a newspaper guy, he should see the value in that.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball"

Author: John Helyar

Publisher: Villard

-! Length, price: 576 pages, $24

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