Baseball is the ideal literary sport.
Baseball is the ideal literary sport. Basketball is too fast-paced, football too jumbled and soccer too team-oriented for the slow elegance of written words to do them justice. But baseball is never in a rush and is really an individual endeavor masquerading as a team enterprise, which lends itself to being described in sentences and paragraphs. It is the book sport, a distinction which also conforms to the image of baseball in our current popular culture as the old-fashioned game whose best years are in the past.
This is what makes baseball – the quintessential sport for the book writer – an odd choice for a book in 2019. Baseball is out, just as printed words are supposedly out. Even people who love baseball lament the state of the game today, plagued as it by too many at-bats ending with one of the Three True Outcomes (a home run, a walk or a strikeout), bloated game length that makes it hard for new fans to get interested and impending labor strife caused by owner greed. Yet, Tyler Kepner’s K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches is an engrossing and engaging read well worth the time of anyone with even a sliver of interest in baseball.
Kepner has organized his book into 10 chapters, each one centered on a single pitch (including a single chapter for the changeup, even though that pitch could be considered more like a family of related pitches). Each chapter traces the history of each pitch from invention to its current-day manifestation, using a variety of research tools including historical newspapers, statistics and interviews with current and former players, coaches and journalists. Throughout each chapter, Kepner introduces the characters and moments most seminal for fully understanding a given pitch. For instance, in the curveball chapter he features Mike Montgomery (who got the last out for the Cubs’ 2016 World Series win), the mid-nineteenth century figure who probably invented the pitch and three generations of legendary Dodgers famous for throwing curves (Carl Erskine, Sandy Koufax and Clayton Kershaw), among other vignettes.
The result of this sort of organization is both positive and negative. On the plus side, Kepner provides at least a story or two from every decade of baseball history dating back to the 1870s, capably balances major moments and famous names with unheard-of events and quirky flash-in-the-pan players and ensures that readers of any knowledge level can read along without getting too lost or too bored. Each of these three accomplishments, particularly that last one of catering both to 12-year-olds reading their first baseball book and grizzled historians of the game who can name the starting lineup of every National League club in 1957, is quite difficult and it is a major credit to Kepner’s vision in conceptualizing his book.
But there are negative consequences as well. The most immediately apparent is that the book cannot go into much depth on any one player, event or pitch. At most, the reader is given six or eight pages and often much less. Another drawback is that the book’s reliance on interviews – particularly when covering the last 20 years or so of baseball history – significantly skews the pool of players available as subjects. This skew is partly geographical; with Kepner based in New York, players from teams in the Northeast are much more represented than those from the South or Midwest. More consequentially, however, is that Kepner is only interviewing players in English, in a league (and a sport) that is ever more international, an issue of representation that is only exacerbated by the increasing paucity of African-Americans excelling in the sport. The result is that Kepner’s account of twenty-first century baseball comes across as very white, even when Major League rosters are becoming predominantly Hispanic, Caribbean and Asian.
Another major theme of K is the growing uniformity in the way that people think about baseball and the many deleterious effects of this. Specifically, future pitchers are evaluated on a few measurable attributes. The most important of these is velocity: if a teenager throws hard, he is a Major League prospect and if he does not, he probably is not a prospect. Gone are the wily craftsmen nibbling at the corners of the strike zone to induce ground balls and the charismatic junkballers who manipulate their pitches in a dozen different ways. Today, everyone throws the ball at bullet speed and everything else be damned. What Kepner’s book does is highlight this issue, showing both the reasons why big-league clubs scout this way and what the long-term effects may be. Turn on a baseball game today and it will be readily apparent: more strikeouts and home runs because a baseball thrown 98 miles per hour is both harder to hit in general while being easier to hit a very long way; fewer balls in play, meaning less action for both fielders and baserunners; and 25-man rosters containing as many as 14 pitchers to keep pitch counts low and pitch velocity high. In other words, all the stuff that makes every baseball book, including K, inherently nostalgic, yearning for the good old days when the game was great.