As a baseball fan, if you've never heard of Zack Hample before, you might want to check him out. The world record holder for the most baseballs caught/snagged at major league games, a prolific blogger, and an enormous fan of the game of baseball has written a new book on the history of the little white sphere we fans adore, even obsess over. It is called, appropriately, "The Baseball: Stunts, Scandals, and Secrets Beneath the Stitches," and it released yesterday.
Of course, with gift card in hand, I had to go pick up my copy at Barnes and Noble yesterday in Tempe. I follow Zack's blog rather regularly, and over the past few months, he's been writing about all the steps and work that goes into writing a book like this - from the hours and hours of research to the editing to the feeling of satisfaction over the completion of the product. It was awesome to feel like I was a part of the process by reading about it (especially with my recent decision to become a library science Master's candidate and this is what I've been studying in part) and to be able to hold the end result.
After picking it up for the B&N price of $15 plus tax, I went to Paradise Bakery and got a cookie and an iced tea and sat outside in the gorgeous 72-degree sunshine to read for a while. The book reads quickly, though my personal reading style for books I'm excited about is to go through it faster than normal the first pass, then read it slower a second time to get everything out of it. But still, I was able to finish the paperback in a few short hours.
Zack breaks the book into three distinct parts: the ball in the news and popular culture, the history of the baseball itself, and a guide for how to catch a baseball one's self at a game. Now, I won't rewrite the book here, but there were a few cool things I wanted to point out to give my readers a taste of the flavor of this biography. I found it very interesting that of all the games in all the stadiums, over all the years that baseball has been played, there is only one record of a fan dying as a result of a foul ball. Considering all the flap in recent years about broken bats and the need for spectator safety, just once did a fan die from the ball itself: a 14-year-old names Alan Fish in 1970 at Dodger Stadium. Indeed, only once has a player ever died from injuries on the field as well: Ray Chapman in 1920 when he was hit in the head with a spitball.
I also found interesting the rich (and sometimes colorful) history of the ball itself. When most of us think about the baseball, a white sphere with red stitches and a couple printed logos on the side comes to mind. We never think about how it has changed since the sport's inception in the mid-1800s, or the controversial past it has had. While reading, it seemed to me like every other year into the mid-1900's, there was some kind of controversy about the ball being too juiced (to easy to hit for distance and even worse to try to field) or too dead (like hitting a beanbag with a Whiffle ball bat). The back-and-forth tug of war over the simple things like the makeup of the cork/rubber core, the way the string and yarn was wound over that core, the height of the stitches, and even the color (red balls were used for a while, and early balls were so stained after a game that they were impossible for the batters to see them) caused huge swings in the early statistics of the game. The different leagues and commissioners commissioned highly scientific studies of the materials and makeup of baseballs - even as far up as 2007 - to try to standardize the game and make it fair.
In the third part, Zack Hample uses his own experiences, building on his previous books ("How to Snag Major League Baseballs" and "Watching Baseball Smarter") to show fans where to stand (never DIRECTLY behind home plate!), what to wear (the visiting team's colors work well), and even how to ask (use "please!"). Even in the most crowded arenas, those tips cut the odds of catching a ball. I should know - I've tried them, and last year I got my first foul ball at a game (from Marlon Byrd), several BP balls, and a couple good tossups (one from Cy Young Award Winner Tim Lincecum). And this year, like I mentioned in my prior post, I caught my first two BP home run balls on the fly (including the first ever at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale, AZ)!
I strongly encourage my friends in the baseball community to pick up a copy of this book. Its light style, paired with subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) humor, attention to detail, and all the new, condensed information about the most instrumental part of America's pastime makes it not only an easy read, but a wonderful biography as well.