Friday, October 22, 2010

"Final Innings" completes documentary history of game

When Dean Sullivan embarked on his ambitious project to trace baseball's past through important or noteworthy documents, there wasn't nearly as much history to cover as there was by the time he finished. Sullivan's fourth volume, Final Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball, 1972-2008, was released this past June, 13 years after the first book in the series and nearly 25 years after he originally dreamed up the idea.

Sullivan was a college student majoring in history in the mid-1980s when the concept first came to him. That was long before the devastating 1994 strike and the steroid era that make up a significant portion of Final Innings occurred. It wasn't until the early '90s, after Sullivan got access to a word processor, that he finally began compiling the documents that made up Early Innings, released in 1997.

Sullivan's books differ from most baseball histories in that he lets original documents tell the tale of the game's past. As editor, he introduces each entry, providing the context, then steps aside. This allows the reader to move through time, seeing events as they were viewed when they happened.

For Final Innings, most of the entries were culled from congressional records, archives such as the Marvin Miller Papers, and original newspaper stories. Miller's collection proved particularly valuable as the rise of the players' association in the 1970s was such an important part of the game's story over the last four decades.

The battle between players and owners brought free agency in the mid-'70s, changing baseball's landscape forever. Sullivan presents the findings of arbitrator Peter Seitz, whose rulings entitled Catfish Hunter and later Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally to sell their services to the highest bidder. For this, Seitz was fired by the owners and demonized by columnist Dick Young, among others.

In a column titled "Freeing Messersmith Work of Bomb-Thrower," Young wrote: "Peter Seitz reminds me of a terrorist, a little man to whom nothing very important has happened in his lifetime, who suddenly decides to create some excitement by tossing a bomb into things."

When a federal court upheld Seitz' ruling, the owners locked the players out of spring training in 1976. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn forced camps to open in mid-March and the two sides eventually worked out a new agreement, which included the structure for the radical new free agency, during the All-Star break. Of course, later clashes in 1981 and 1994 weren't so peacefully resolved.

There was nothing funny about the '94 episode, which many would classify as the biggest black eye in modern baseball history. But it's almost comical now to look back and see Bud Selig's repeated insistence that he was merely an acting commissioner and not interested in the full-time job.

"I have stated from the time of my election as Chairman of the Executive Council and have repeated for the entire eighteen months I am not a candidate to be Commissioner and am not interested in serving as Commissioner. I can unequivocally state that remains my unwavering position," Selig testified before a Senate subcommittee in March 1994. Here we are, nearly 17 years later, and he's still the head man.

Baseball healed from that disruption in the late 1990s, thanks in part to the latest stain on the game, performance-enhancing drugs. Early on, neither the owners nor the players were interested in doing anything about steroids and their impact. Sullivan follows the 1998 race between supersized Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, featuring the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's account of the night McGwire passed Roger Maris' single-season home run record.

By the time Barry Bonds erupted for 73 home runs in 2001, the world knew something was amiss. The final chapter includes a lengthy San Francisco Chronicle summary of the BALCO probe from 2003, and concludes with a fascinating congressional memo questioning the truthfulness of Roger Clemens' testimony regarding his own use of human growth hormone.

The labor strife and drug issues may not be everyone's favorite things to read about. But there's no denying their impact on the game. Sullivan's collection places them on a contextual timeline and provides the detail to really understand what was going on.

Of course, there's a lot more to the book than that. You'll also find original newspaper accounts of many legendary moments: Carlton Fisk's heroic blast in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series; Reggie Jackson's three home runs in the 1977 Series; The Bucky Dent game; Kirk Gibson's game-winning home run in 1988 (also featured on the cover); Toronto's 15-14 win over Philadelphia in Game 4 of the 1993 World Series. Other random entries include stories on the Bazooka Joe Bubble Gum Blowing Championship in 1975, a Sporting News profile on the Society for American Baseball Research from 1977, and an exhibition contest between the Orioles and a Cuban team in Havana in 1999.

In all, there are 105 documents included in Final Innings. It's not a quick read, and at times it's not a fun read. But it's important material. Even those who followed things closely as they happened will learn new details and be reminded of things they forgot (or repressed) over time.

For those interested in the three previous volumes, Early Innings covers events from 1825-1908, Middle Innings goes from 1900-48, and Late Innings covers the years 1945-72. (There is some overlap to allow certain themes to hold together.) All were released by University of Nebraska Press.

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