What I’m Reading: “Wizard” by Ozzie Smith and Rob Rains

Wizard, by Ozzie Smith and Rob Rains, was the first sports autobiography I ever read.

I got the book from the bookmobile that came by Ellisville Elementary School, which in retrospect is strange, as our school had a library. Nonetheless, I remember emerging from the bookmobile with my prize, leaning my back against the wall of the hallway, and beginning to read as other members of my class finished choosing their books.

To be honest, the fact that I still remember this, probably 30 years later, is more a reflection of the fact that I was a baseball-mad kid and that Ozzie Smith was my favorite player than the book itself. Nonetheless, Wizard created something of a stir shortly after it was published, mostly due to comments Smith makes regarding Whitey Herzog, umpires, a few former teammates, and about the Cardinals’ recent playoff opponents.

In some ways, Wizard is a very ordinary sports biography, as Smith chronologically takes the reader through his childhood, brief minor-league career, and summarizes each season. At 184 pages in the hardcover edition, this is not a long book, and Smith doesn’t linger long on any of the specific baseball moments that take place in the book. Even Smith’s home run in the 1985 NLCS against Tom Niedenfuer, arguably the most historic play of his career, receives just a couple sentences:

For the first time in my professional career, I hit a home run batting left-handed. I wasn’t trying to hit a home run; it just happened. Niedenfuer threw me a fastball inside, and it got a little more of the plate than he had intended. I was able to drive it well enough so that it just got over the wall.

While Smith’s recollections of the clubhouse and on-field events are relatively cursory and he claims to have absolutely no knowledge of his teammates’ drug use, he’s utterly unafraid to express his opinions about the game. At times, it almost reads as though he is auditioning for one of ESPN’s modern sports-talk shows, where he has to throw out as many hot takes as he can. In some cases, such as when he recommends that Major League Baseball move from separate American and National League umpiring crews or advocates for instant replay, he appears prescient. At other times, such as when he predicts that Bob Horner is going to thrive while replacing Jack Clark as the Cardinals’ first baseman in 1988 or suggests that he may retire after his contract concludes in 1989, history shows that he was significantly off the mark.

Mostly, though, this book provides Smith the opportunity to throw some haymakers at those who he feels have disrespected him during his career. He pulls no punches when discussing the San Diego Padres organization, criticizing the lack of instruction he says he received in the minor leagues and the firing of Alvin Dark during spring training of his rookie season. He also accuses Ed Whitson of intentionally hitting him with a pitch that broke his wrist and expresses frustration that his teammates immediately thought it was an accident.

A large portion of the book is focused on his contract negotiations, and Smith says that racism may have been involved in the team’s refusal to pay Dave Winfield or him what they were worth. According to Smith, when his agent, Ed Gottlieb, purchased an ad in the San Diego paper requesting part-time job offers on Smith’s behalf to supplement the meager income the Padres were paying him, Gottlieb did that on his own without Smith’s authorization. That incident, however, leads to Joan Kroc, the wife of the Padres’ owner, sarcastically offering Smith a job as her gardener. Smith is rightfully offended and indicates that this is when he knew he couldn’t stay with the Padres.

Smith goes after other former teammates and opponents as well. He says that Neil Allen was not mentally strong enough to deal with the scrutiny that came with becoming the Cardinals’ closer after Bruce Sutter left for Atlanta in free agency. He says that Jack Clark should have taken a cortisone shot to see if he could have played through his injury during the 1987 playoffs. He says that since he signed a larger contract, his strike zone has become larger as umpires try to humble him. He criticizes the Mets and Giants for comments they made during playoff series against the Cardinals. He says that he and his teammates were frustrated by Herzog’s repeated comments that he couldn’t believe the Cardinals reached the 1987 World Series. He even theorizes that the Twins turned the air vents in the Metrodome on and off to gain home-field advantage. Most humorously, he goes after Bob Brenly after the Giants’ catcher suggested that Smith was trying to be too flashy during their 1987 playoff series:

Bob Brenly, who in my opinion is mediocre at best, said after the game that I didn’t make the play because I was ‘styling.’ He once made four errors in the same game playing third base and he’s telling me about playing defense. I don’t tell him how to catch or say anything about all his passed balls. If you walked down the street and asked 20 people if they know who Bob Brenly is, I guarantee 19 of them wouldn’t know him.

Incredibly, Smith spends more words on what is admittedly a pretty epic takedown of Bob Brenly than he does in describing the single most important home run of his career (also, I love the idea of Smith combing through box scores looking for Bob Brenly’s worst defensive game just to include that zinger in the book).

The myriad opinions Smith shared in the book made a few days’ worth of news during 1988 spring training. To promote the book, Smith participated in an interview with Tom Boswell of GQ magazine, and Boswell used parts of Smith’s book and the interview in the article. According to a March 30, 1988, St. Louis Post-Dispatch story, the GQ article created a bit of a stir.

Herzog and Smith sat down to clear the air regarding several of Smith’s comments from the book, and Herzog arranged for a phone call between Smith and National League President Bart Giamatti to discuss Smith’s criticism of umpires. Clark responded angrily to Smith’s recommendation that he should have taken a cortisone shot and tried to play through the pain, pointing out that he participated in a simulated game and simply couldn’t compete.

“I think he did one too many backflips,” Clark said in a separate March 30 Post-Dispatch article under the headline, “Clark Lashes Out At Ozzie’s Comments.”

“Now Ozzie wants to be the manager and the doctor. I don’t know why he’s deciding right now to speak his mind. Maybe it’s because he was a .230 lifetime hitter and he suddenly got paid $2 million and it hasn’t been until the last couple of years that he feels he’s started to earn it.”

Ultimately, though, while the book may have made headlines when it was published prior to the 1988 season, I think I would only recommend it to hardcore Ozzie Smith fans. Other books do a much better job of documenting the Cardinals’ pennant-winning teams of the ’80s, and it obviously doesn’t cover the final nine years of Smith’s Hall of Fame career. Smith really doesn’t dive into any details of his personal life outside of brief stories about how he met his wife and the day his first son was born, and since the book is relatively brief, every incident outside of his contract negotiations comes and goes pretty quickly.

The biggest takeaway I gained from reading Wizard is an appreciation of Smith’s competitive nature. After reading this, I really get the feeling that he played with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, determined to show the people who thought he was too small, or couldn’t hit enough, or thought he was a hot dog. For a guy who always seemed fairly polished in front of the TV cameras, Wizard shows the tremendous personal pride he had throughout his career and how he dealt with it when he felt disrespected by others.

What I’m Reading: “The Cardinals Way” by Howard Megdal

The Cardinals Way: How One Team Embraced Tradition and Moneyball at the Same Time is an ambitious book that does a lot of things really well and makes for a captivating read.

Author Howard Megdal illustrates the way in which the team’s conversion to analytics was not out of line with the team’s history, which included the innovations of Branch Rickey and the commitment to continuous improvement of longtime baseball men like George Kissell, and also includes a sustained commitment to scouting and player development.

As a result, The Cardinals Way ends up becoming several books in one. Megdal devotes the early chapters to tracing the Cardinals’ history under Branch Rickey and the innovations he introduced to the St. Louis Cardinals, including the creation of a minor league system designed to continuously pump fresh talent onto the major-league roster.

Megdal then devotes significant time to Kissell, the Cardinals’ long-time minor-league coach, whose baseball philosophy remains a significant part of the Cardinals’ identity. Of all the Cardinals books I’ve read, I have not yet found another that is as dedicated to showing the impact Kissell has had on the Cardinals behind the scenes. At one point in this section, Megdal describes an interview with a minor-league instructor who played under Kissell. As that coach glowingly describes their interactions with Kissell and the impact he had upon their life and career, another player-turned-coach overhears them and begins to share their own Kissell stories. Soon, yet another coach joins them to share additional stories.

The section on Kissell alone makes this book worth reading.

Megdal follows that section by discussing Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. and his growing belief after buying the team that the Cardinals need to improve their data gathering and analysis. To implement that plan, DeWitt hires Jeff Luhnow, and Megdal describes the changes that take place in the St. Louis Cardinals organization and the challenges Luhnow faced in implementing his vision for more data-based decision-making.

One of Megdal’s real strengths in this book is the access he obtains. He interviews all the key players, including DeWitt, Luhnow, Walt Jocketty, Sig Mejdal, and Dan Kantrovitz, and they all seem to be genuinely open and honest with him about that time period. Megdal actually dives into the personalities of Mejdal and Kantrovitz – arguably the two least well-known of the key players in the Cardinals’ shift to analytics – but I would have liked to have seen Megdal dive more into who these other men are and how their backgrounds shape their decision-making.

He’s fair with Jocketty and is quick to point out that what Jocketty was doing was working – as evidenced by the World Series appearance in 2004 and the World Series championship in 2006 – but he doesn’t give us any understanding as to how Jocketty got to this position or what his organizational philosophy has been.

I also would have liked to have gotten a better feel for who Luhnow is as a person. He’s obviously a key player in the story the book is telling and Megdal quotes him throughout that section of the book, but as a reader, I really never got to know much about him outside of his professional background and his philosophy for the organization. Obviously, Luhnow’s personal characteristics are more interesting now, in 2020, given the manner in which his career with the Astros ended.

When it comes to discussing the conflict within the front office, however, Megdal gets unparalleled access, including interviews with Jocketty about his days with the Cardinals. Personally, I found this part of the book fascinating as well, as it covers topics related to baseball, but also provides great insights regarding organizational goals, communication, and leadership. This transition to incorporating analytics into their decision-making is as important as anything that has happened to the Cardinals under DeWitt’s ownership, and this is the deepest dive into that transition that I have seen.

In the final portion of the book, Megdal illustrates how important the Cardinals’ scouts and player development professionals are to the team’s success. Megdal speaks to a number of Cardinals prospects – regular, run-of-the-mill prospects looking to make their major-league dreams come true. At the same time, he also spotlights the Cardinals’ scouts, primarily Charlie Gonzalez. Charlie is a memorable character, and the scenes where Megdal brings us into the scouts’ meetings in advance of the draft provide a fascinating glimpse into the process.

As you can probably tell, I enjoyed all three pieces of the book, as they paint the full picture of how the Cardinals’ analytics version ties the past with the future and the analytics movement with an emphasis on superior scouting and player development. The publisher doesn’t actually divide the book into these three sections, but these shifts in focus are so defined that I can see why readers would like one or two of the book’s sections more than the others.

Ultimately, though, I think all three pieces are necessary to fully paint the picture of how the Cardinals have incorporated analytics into their operations. I love that Megdal placed a spotlight on George Kissell and the impact he has had upon Cardinals baseball. I was impressed by the access Megdal was given to the club, even in discussing its internal conflict and its scouting decisions, and I liked that this book took me inside the Cardinals’ front office with a perspective I haven’t seen during this generation of St. Louis baseball.

For Cardinals fans, even those who haven’t bought into analytics, this book offers a bit of everything. It’s definitely worth reading to better understand the process that led to the 2011 World Series and established the foundation for the Cardinals teams of today.

What I’m Reading: “Whitey Herzog Builds a Winner” by Doug Feldmann

With Whitey Herzog Builds a Winner: The St. Louis Cardinals, 1979-1982, Doug Feldmann traces the Cardinals’ path to the 1982 World Series championship from Lou Brock’s final season in 1979 to Bruce Sutter’s final pitch in Game 7.

Feldmann’s decision to focus the first two chapters on Brock’s resurgent final season is an interesting one as he seeks to tie the Cardinals of the 1960s and ’70s to the team Whitey Herzog would create following his arrival in 1980. Even as the 1970s weren’t a particularly successful era in Cardinals history, Brock’s return to form in 1979 after subpar seasons in 1977 and 1978 provides a positive opener to help bookend the story.

Ultimately, though, those first two chapters feel like part of a different book. After Herzog takes Kenny Boyer’s place as manager of the Cardinals, he quickly takes the measure of his players and tells Gussie Busch that the Redbirds need a complete overhaul. As a result, Busch fires John Claiborne and makes Herzog the general manager duties as well. It doesn’t take long for Herzog to start wheeling and dealing, and by the time Feldmann begins to dive into the Cardinals’ championship season, almost all of Brock’s former teammates are out of the picture.

Feldmann’s research is largely built around newspaper accounts; autobiographies by Herzog, Brock, Jack Buck, Darrell Porter, and Red Schoendienst; and interviews with Herzog, Ken Reitz, Don Kessinger, Mark Littell, and John Fulgham. There are a lot of good stories shared, and Feldmann does a good job bringing the games to life, particularly during the 1982 playoffs.

Of course, the Cardinals had a variety of interesting personalities in those days, and while Feldmann touches on each of them, he doesn’t dive as deep into the 1982 players as he does the final year of Brock’s career. Though it would have made the book longer, I would have liked to have seen him provide more biographical information for some of the Cardinals’ stars of the era, including George Hendrick, Keith Hernandez, Ozzie Smith, Bruce Sutter, and others.

However, while the book doesn’t dive into the personalities as much I might like, Herzog gets a significant spotlight and Feldmann does a good job shining a light on Herzog’s unique personality and approach to the game.

Ultimately, Whitey Builds a Winner is a great book for readers seeking an introduction to Herzog and the 1982 Cardinals. Feldmann is very thorough in detailing the moves Herzog made to build the roster he needed and in showing the way that the entire Cardinals roster – including both the stars and the reserves – contributed to the 1982 triumph. For 24 years, the 1982 season would stand as the Cardinals’ most recent championship and this book provides a really good look at the season and how Herzog made that World Series win possible.

What I’m Reading: “Living on the Black” by John Feinstein

living-on-the-blackWith Living on the Black: Two Pitchers, Two Teams, One Season to Remember, John Feinstein meticulously details the 2007 seasons of two future Hall of Famers – New York Mets starting pitcher Tom Glavine and New York Yankees starting pitcher Mike Mussina.

It would prove to be the penultimate season in the career of each pitcher, as both would retire after their 2008 seasons. It proved an interesting season for Feinstein to follow, as Glavine pursued his 300th victory and Mussina battled through arguably the worst season of his career.

The first quarter of the book lays out both men’s careers leading into the 2007 season in a compelling fashion before diving into the day-to-day cycle of wins, losses, preparation between starts, and constant adjustments. Both Glavine and Mussina are near the tail end of their careers. Never a hard thrower, Glavine has relied upon precise pitch location and guile throughout his career. Mussina, meanwhile, finds himself adjusting to a fastball that no longer has the velocity it once did. As a result, we get an interesting contrast even though both pitchers, located in big-market New York and seeing the end of their Hall of Fame careers coming just around the corner, appear on the surface to be very similar.

Part of the appeal is the difference in the pitchers’ personalities. Glavine is obviously the friendlier, more low-key subject, and he happens to be enjoying a more successful season. Feinstein provides an insightful glimpse into how important family is to Glavine and the relationship between Glavine and his former Braves teammates John Smoltz and Greg Maddux. He also does an excellent job documenting Glavine’s thoughts and feelings as he approached his 300th career victory and that pursuit obviously plays a significant part in the book.

Mussina’s season, meanwhile, was much more challenging and so while he doesn’t seem as open about his family and friendships as Glavine is, his season – which would prove to be Joe Torre’s final as Yankees manager – contained much more drama and conflict. It particularly showed how quickly a season can turn on a pitcher.

Throughout much of the book, Feinstein documents a season that seems to be going OK for Mussina. He’s not dominant by any stretch, but he’s having a respectable season when things suddenly spiral. As Mussina piles bad start after bad start, he doesn’t seem to have any answers. In fact, Feinstein writes, Mussina asks five people whose opinion he respects what he’s doing wrong and they give him five different answers. Eventually, Mussina takes pieces of each answer and decides that he’s not being aggressive enough and is trying too hard to live on the black part of the plate, but it’s not enough to prevent him from getting booted from the starting rotation for the first time in his career.

Eventually, injuries – including one to Roger Clemens, who also is making his final appearance in Yankees pinstripes – allow Mussina to return to the rotation, where he helps the Yankees make the playoffs and finishes the year with an 11-10 record. Not exactly an all-star season, but certainly respectable, especially for an aging pitcher who was struggling to hold down a rotation spot at one point.

Feinstein also shares some details that humanize Mussina, a player known for sometimes being prickly. Getting Mussina’s voice certainly helps, but I was most interested in Mussina’s relationship with his bullpen catcher. At least twice in the book, Mussina points out that only a few teammates remain from when he first arrived in New York, and Feinstein strongly hints that it’s actually Mussina’s sensitivity and how hard it is for him to build relationships and then see those people go to other organizations that make him build walls around himself. It’s a fascinating insight into Mussina’s psyche that I really appreciated.

Feinstein’s storytelling ability is always top-notch (A Season on the Brink, documenting a season with Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers, was one of the first sports books I ever read), and I can’t say that I preferred Glavine or Mussina’s story over the other. They both have interesting details to share, and Feinstein is especially effective in showing the little details of the season – how they prepare for each start, their mental approaches, the ups and downs of their relationships with managers and coaches.

At the same time, there were moments where it felt as though Feinstein was being unnecessarily petty or sarcastic and it distracted me from the story he was telling. The most pointed example was in regards to Carl Pavano. Feinstein points out how remarkable it is that both Glavine and Mussina have been relatively healthy throughout their long careers, but if he has an appreciation for how incredible their health has been, he certainly has no sympathy for the oft-injured Pavano.

Feinstein relates early in the book a situation in which Pavano tells reporters he has nothing to prove entering the 2007 season despite his recent injury history. When this is conveyed to Mussina, he expresses disbelief and tells reporters that Pavano absolutely has something to prove to his teammates, and needs to show the Yankees that he can be counted on to take the ball when his turn in the rotation comes up.

It feels like a minor misunderstanding between teammates, but Feinstein hops back to the subject of Pavano a few times in the subsequent to take a few gratuitous shots. Mussina and Pavano happen to go on the disabled list the same day, and as Feinstein writes, “After his impressive outing in Minnesota, he (Pavano) had reported some tightness in his right forearm. The so-called tightness would eventually lead to season-ending surgery.”

It was the use of “so-called” that caught my eye – after all, that indicates that Feinstein isn’t sure there was any tightness at all, which seems strange given that Yankees’ doctors confirmed the injury and the guy had season-ending surgery to correct it. Pitchers don’t fake injuries that require them to go under the knife. If anything, Pavano seems like a cautionary tale about how hard it is to be healthy and successful at the game’s highest level, but is instead treated as though he’s somehow not tough enough to pitch in New York.

There are a few other small examples in which Feinstein introduces journeyman opponents sarcastically as “the immortal” so-and-so. The book is certainly good enough to overcome this strange tendency, but it’s weird for a guy who is writing a book that analyzes the nuances of a professional baseball career to mock players competing at the highest level.

There also is an interesting point late in the book in which Mussina is pulled from the rotation and Yankees pitching coach Ron Guidry inexplicably begins to ignore Mussina. As it’s described, Guidry simply stops talking to Mussina and looks through him when they see each other in the clubhouse. Obviously, I have no way of knowing whether Feinstein asked Guidry about this and what the response may have been, but as readers we never really get an explanation from Guidry’s perspective as to why – or even if – this takes place. In the afterward, Feinstein thanks Guidry for all his help with the book, so it’s unclear whether Feinstein doesn’t dive into this more because he likes Guidry or there’s something else going on. He certain isn’t as gentle in his handling of others, whether it’s Pavano or the relief pitchers who lose leads for Mussina or Glavine.

Regardless, as a Cardinals fan who doesn’t particularly care for the Mets or the Yankees, this is definitely a book worth reading for any baseball fan. The analysis of pitching from the perspective of two of the game’s best is outstanding, and following both pitchers throughout their 2007 season makes for an interesting format.

With the benefit of hindsight, I’d have loved to see an extra chapter added to a subsequent edition that provides some insight into the close of both men’s careers. While Glavine’s 2007 season was superior to Mussina’s, Glavine would struggle in 2008. After signing with the Braves, he would go 2-4 and throw just 63 1/3 innings that season. The Braves would release him in 2009 and he would retire shortly thereafter, a sharp turn from the optimism Glavine expresses regarding his baseball future late in this book.

Meanwhile, Mussina, who had just struggled through arguably the toughest season of his career, would turn things around after a slow start in 2008. After chronicling how Mussina had won 19 games in both 1995 and 1996, Feinstein may have been surprised to see Mussina finally win 20 games in 2008 while shaving almost two runs off his ERA.

In the book’s final pages, Feinstein also touches on the steroid scandal and the fact that it included several of Mussina and Glavine’s teammates – namely Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and Paul Lo Duca. Even outside of the steroid scandal, Feinstein only briefly mentions Clemens and Pettitte, and Mussina’s relationship with his fellow Hall of Fame pitchers is never discussed, a strange oversight that left me wishing Feinstein had seen fit to mention a bit more about the Yankees’ clubhouse culture and Mussina’s place in it.

I guess, though, that that’s the mark of a really good book – even after you’re through reading it, you’d like to read just a bit more.

What I’m Reading: “The Gashouse Gang” by John Heidenry

gashouse-gangDespite its title, John Heidenry’s “The Gashouse Gang: How Dizzy Dean, Leo Durocher, Branch Rickey, Pepper Martin, and Their Colorful, Come-From-Behind Ball Club Won the World Series – and America’s Heart – During the Great Depression” is mostly a book about the 1934 St. Louis Cardinals’ star pitcher – Dizzy Dean.

Of course, the book touches on the other personalities that drove the team, including Frankie Frisch, Paul Dean, Pepper Martin, Ducky Medwick, and Leo Durocher, and even includes an early chapter on Branch Rickey, though he disappears for most of the book. However, most of these characters only discussed in the broadest biographical terms; this is mostly a book about the Deans and the way in which Dizzy took the baseball world by storm in the summer of 1934.

Heidenry covers Dizzy Dean’s path to the Major Leagues, the brothers’ confrontation with Cardinals owner Sam Breadon and Rickey over salary in the midst of a pennant race, and the variety of crazy things Dean said and did over the course of the season.

Interestingly, Heidenry admits that while the team’s famous nickname did not arrive until 1935, he doesn’t have an explanation for why the 1934 Cardinals were dubbed “the Gashouse Gang,” though he offers a number of suggestions that have been proposed elsewhere. In fact, he spends a not insignificant amount of time describing why the name makes little sense, as the term “gashouse” had been out of vogue for decades, and while New York had a “gashouse district” a generation previous, St. Louis did not.

Nonetheless, while Heidenry does not dive into great deal into any of the personalities on display outside of Dizzy Dean, he does provide a sense of how the Gashouse Gang fit into the culture of 1930s America, and the way that baseball was in many respects an entirely different atmosphere in those days.

Heidenry provides a steady stream of entertaining anecdotes – most centered on Dean, but a few that don’t. He includes the day that Dean famously provided interviews to three different journalists from New York City and helpfully gave them each a different birth date so they each would have a scoop for their readers.

Among my favorites:

  • When player-manager Frisch went to the mound to pull Tex Carleton from the game and the pitcher objected. “Well, you may feel all right, but I feel terrible,” Frisch responded. “Please go away from here.”
  • After striking Dizzy Dean in the head with a thrown ball in the 1934 World Series, knocking the young superstar unconscious, Detroit Tigers shortstop told reporters, “If I’d known his head was there, I would have thrown the ball harder.”
  • After Dizzy Dean’s playing days ended prematurely due to injury, he began a successful broadcasting career and was paired with Pee Wee Reese on CBS’s game of the week. “Look-a-there, Pee Wee,” Dean reportedly said once. “Those young folks are smooching after every pitch. He’s kissing her on the strikes and she’s kissing him on the balls.”

Though it wasn’t directly related to the Cardinals, I also appreciated this quote from Casey Stengel, whose Brooklyn Dodgers defeated the New York Giants on the final day of the season to help cement New York’s fall from the top of the National League and the Cardinals to capture the pennant:

“Farewell, my bonny men,” he told his players now that the season was over. “Some of you are off to maim the gentle rabbit. Some of you will shoot the carefree deer. I bid you Godspeed, my lamby-pambies, my brave young soldiers. Go with Casey’s blessing on your sweet heads.”

That, my friends, is poetry far superior to most anything I was forced to read in my English literature classes.

As for “The Gashouse Gang,” it’s a book that recounts a time in baseball history when the personalities were bigger and the game was far less polished. For fans of the St. Louis Cardinals, it’s a comprehensive look at the 1934 season and a team that will forever be remembered in Redbirds lore.