Coming Out Swinging: History’s Superlative Baseball Stories

Coming Out Swinging: History’s Superlative Baseball Stories

Major League Baseball’s National League Championship Series heads to game seven tonight, as the St. Louis Cardinals take on the San Francisco Giants. Now that it’s do or die, it’s fun to predict which team will rise up to the occasion and which will fall short of the World Series. Here’s a list of our favorite stories of baseball’s almosts, could-have-beens, can-you-believe-its and oh-no-you-didn’ts.

The Champions of Cheat
Before being immortalized in the cornfields of Iowa by Ray Liotta in Field of Dreams, Shoeless Joe Jackson was first notorious for being one of baseball’s biggest cheaters. He and seven of his teammates of the 1919 Chicago Black Sox got paid off by gamblers to intentionally lose the World Series, ultimately earning the guilty octet a lifetime ban from baseball. Eliot Asinof brilliantly brings to life “the most gigantic sporting swindle in the history of America!” in “Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series.”

The Worst Team of All Time
The league was still in its infancy when the Cleveland Spiders took the field for their 13th major league season in 1899, but it would be the team’s last —the club only won 20 of their 154 games, losing 40 of their last 41 games of the season (a cigar clerk was on the mound for the final game) and finishing an obscene 84 games behind the first place Brooklyn Superbas. ‘Bad-baseball’ fanatic J. Thomas Hetrick is not shy in calling them  “Misfits! Baseball’s Worst Team Ever.”

Getting the Monkey Off Their Backs
Stephen King is a huge Red Sox fan, and in 2004, he and writer friend Stewart O’Nan decided to chronicle the upcoming season. Turns out it was the very year that Boston staged the most epic World Series comeback of all time on the way to breaking its 85-year “Curse of the Bambino.” The result is “Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season,” a decidedly less-horrific narrative than some of King’s other titles, though the chase for the championship isn’t lacking edge-of-your-seat suspense.

The Loveable Losers
Speaking of curses, the Chicago Cubs’ “Curse of the Billy Goat” (real or not? —we won’t speculate) represents baseball’s longest and most anguishing championship drought. Sadly, it doesn’t look like 2012 is going to be the year the Cubs win it, so why not dig into “Before the Curse: The Chicago Cubs’ Glory Years, 1870-1945,” and let author Carson Cunningham introduce you to the team that used to be known as a powerhouse before being labeled “loveable losers.”

If at First You Don’t Succeed, Write a Book
Some of sports’ best stories are the ones that never got told. Tormented by inconsistent play for many minor league teams, New York Times magazine stalwart Pat Jordan recounts his “I coulda been a contender” story of a once-promising pitching career and the dream he was forced to surrender. “A False Spring” is also a warts-and-all look at the business of baseball and life in the minor leagues.

Is it Over Yet?
On April 18, 1981, a modest crowd filled McCoy stadium in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, to watch a AAA-game between the hometown Red Sox and the Rochester Red Wings; it took over eight hours and 33 innings later to crown a victor. (In fact, they got called at 4 a.m. before play resumed over two months later in front of a sellout crowd and even a Japanese film crew.) Author and New York Times journalist Dan Berry delves into this historic game in “Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game,” painting a picture of Americana small-town lives, minor league dreams (Wade Boggs, Cal Ripken Jr., and other baseball greats played in this game), and all that went into making this game one of professional sports’ greatest.

Why We Need Baseball
1968 was a year rocked by national tragedies, race riots and war, the effects of which could be felt as much on the baseball field as they were on Main Street. Detroit spent the summer of ’67 embattled in some of America’s worst riots; just a year later, the city took to the streets in support of their American League-leading Tigers. Tim Wendel’s “Summer of ’68: The Season That Changed Baseball–and America–Forever,” recounts a time when the country was captivated by the national pastime at the moment it needed the game most.

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