516 pages, Non-fiction/History/Politics
1 1/2 out of 5 stars
I love baseball. Have loved it my whole life. I was there when Kent Hrbek hit a grand slam in the 6th game of the 1987 World Series and I bit my nails all the way through the exciting 2009 post-season, which was preceded by an incredible one-game playoff between the Twins and the Tigers, forever dubbed in my home town by a simplistic and poetic moniker: Game 163. I also have a passion for political dialogue and love nothing more than an intelligent debate about elections, tracking polls and policy. I jumped at the opportunity to review a book by Victor Baltov that combined the two worlds and explained how one was the other. Baseball is America sounded like the perfect way to warm up for spring training.
I have not been this disappointed since Joe Nathan surrendered a ninth inning home run to Alex Rodriguez in Game 2 of the 2009 ALDS.
What could have been a provoking expose on the disappointment of baseball’s steroid era and its connection to America’s political landscape is instead nothing but a bitter, rambling journal overflowing with sarcastic and often mean-spirited hostility. It seems the author is trying to be funny and irreverent while showing off his intimate knowledge of baseball but it becomes a self-gratifying exercise. As if he’s writing in a diary, not to educate but to feed his own ego. This book is for people who are both die-hard baseball fans and far-right ideologues. If you meet both requirements then this book is filled with home runs but Baltov’s audience is limited to people who are exactly like him. Why do we need almost 500 pages? He could have done all this with a blog, which is probably a better option for material of this type.
His chief hypothesis, that a liberal, secular culture is responsible for introducing, sustaining and celebrating the use of steroids in baseball is never supported with any facts or data, and the connections he draws between liberalism and baseball’s steroid era are tenuous at best. His argument is more wishful thinking than scientific theory.
Writes Baltov on the steroid era: “The over-medicated, gadget addicted, sensory-deprived American fan base, indoctrinated into political correctness, metaphorically void of pitch recognition and unable to identify the curveball or change-up, is apathetic to the entire fix and continues to celebrate a crime that is immoral.” Hey baseball fans – this is you he’s talking about!
Where does he get off insinuating that baseball fans are not completely outraged at the steroid era? Head over to the fan forums at mlb.com and see if you can find a single person who applauds the use of steroids. You can’t find them. Everyone agrees that steroids nearly ruined baseball. This is not a political issue any more than the use of cocaine in the workplace, or domestic violence, or drunk driving. We all agree that these things are wrong.
The structure is poorly organized and nothing seems to follow what came before it. The thoughts are not presented in any coherent fashion, it’s just non-stop raving. Here’s an example. After a prolonged exposition on the flaws of Communist Russia, he says this: “Rasputin, the Mad Monk or Black Monk, who was thought to have special healing powers, especially with respect to the tsar’s son, who was suffering from hemophilia, was really just another pervert trying to live the ‘seventy-two virgin’ life he imagined without the encumbrance of a suicide bombing act.”
What does this have to do with baseball or America??!! I found myself asking this question throughout the book.
When he moves away from ranting about Russia and sticks to baseball the book becomes more personal, except that he constantly insults baseball fans, and as a result, his readers. He refers to the current generation of baseball fans as “a generation of secular, unprincipled addicts packaged under a politically correct feel-good label of being a ‘forgiving people.’” For a man who repeatedly flaunts his devotion to God, one wonders what problem he has with a nation of forgiving people?
For some reason, he talks about Orthodox Christianity and says 1917 was the year that it was “out with the old and in with the new for the most Orthodox Christian country in the world after the fall of the Holy Roman Empire at Constantinople in AD 1453.” The Holy Roman Empire was a country? And how holy were they, really? On the very same page he accuses Senator Al Franken of Minnesota of committing voter fraud but gives no evidence. None.
He constantly refers to Barack Obama as the Black Lenin who is degrading the red, white and blue of America. Fair, but back it up with some examples please. Help us connect the dots, otherwise you come off as a nothing more than a narrow-minded ideologue. Taking swipes at the left every chance he gets, he often invents those chances from thin air, causing the book to read like a rant at times, like a diary or memoir at others. This book has plenty of red meat for conservatives, and not much for anyone else.
He even goes so far as to trash the Boy Scouts and compare them to a pro-Communist youth organization while touting their godlessness, when every Boy Scout states during the Boy Scout Oath that they will “do my duty to God and my country.” I was a Boy Scout. I went to scout camp many times. We prayed before every single meal.
Seeing the world through the lens of baseball the author weaves baseball jargon into everyday life, equating elementary school grades to innings (4th grade = the 4th inning), sins to errors, good deeds to hits, the crucifixion of Christ to a sacrifice bunt, and death to the post season. But he takes off on wild, undisciplined tangents hopping from his uncle to Joseph Stalin to the Iliad to the Dead Sea scrolls, all in the same paragraph, never tying any of it together. The tone settles during the second half but that becomes nothing but a very detailed and very wordy account of his amateur baseball career – nearly every game of it – and contains the consistent theme that Baltov could have been one of America’s greatest athletes, if not for our country’s secular, liberal sports culture.
This book about baseball reminds me not of The Unforgettable Season but of a book by the former German chancellor : a disorganized collection of incoherent ideological rambling with plenty of typos (since you asked, on p. 3 & p.14, just to name two). At times Baltov’s opinionated and staunchly-political ravings are just too intense. He even compares Soviets troops surrendering to Nazis in World War II to Americans voting for Barack Obama.
One thing that will really bug a lot of people, no matter your political stripes: the author almost refuses to name pro baseball players by their real names, relying almost completely on nicknames. You can mention that Ty Cobb was the Georgia Peach and then refer to him as the Georgia Peach for the rest of the story but the author does not do this. Instead we have a hodgepodge of nicknames like Hammerin’ Hank, Bucketfoot Al, Goose, and Black Mike that would have sent me online to look them up if only there weren’t so many of them. I stopped caring pretty quickly. When he rattles off four or five nicknames in one sentence without any context he’s either showing off or assuming incorrectly that his audience knows who these people are. It gets old. Fast. Take this: “The hometown Reds were a hitting machine on the Senior Circuit, leading the league in six offense categories led by Susan Derringer’s future Hall of Fame grandfather, 48-Ounce Edd.” Does he expect you to know who these people are? When we don’t know who he’s talking about we don’t know what he’s talking about.
For a guy who openly deplores the secular, liberal powerbase of American pop culture (read: Hollywood) he sure does consume a lot of their product. He constantly trashes the liberal media and the destructive culture of Hollywood yet he frequently drops enduring movie references that show he has appreciated, even cherished, his time spent before the screen. It’s an absurd duality. Baltov shows a clear love for a medium he abhors. It’s like watching a chocolate addict bemoan the evils The Hershey Company while watching him buy a case of Milk Duds with a handful of dollars bills glazed with chocolate fingerprints.
The book contains an almost fatal flaw: there are blank pages with missing text. How could a colossal error like this ever get though?? We’re not talking about one missing page, which would be colossal in itself, but several blank pages. Chapter 12 ends in mid-sentence on p.187 with p. 188 left completely blank. The next two pages have photographs followed by a pair of blank pages. The missing text never appears. This continues into Chapter 13 which starts on p. 193 but ps. 194, 195, 197, 200, 201, 203, 206, 207 and 209 are completely blank. The pages filling the gaps contain text, but only in portions, leaving an incoherent Swiss cheese chapter. This holey practice continues into Chapter 14 but there is no need to break it down. You get the idea.
I hope this book is sent back to the printer before it hits the mass market because this crucial error destroys all credibility. I love a controversial book, and Baseball is America is certainly controversial but errors this monumental cannot be excused. This cost the author to be penalized an entire “star.”
If you want a great book about baseball and American history you probably can’t do much better than Cait Murphy’s Crazy ’08, an amazing history of the 1908 baseball season. Yogi Berra said “It ain’t over till it’s over” and in the case of Baseball is America, I couldn’t wait until the final out of the ninth inning.
Strengths: a very strong point of view that never backs down, and an informed sense of baseball history
Opportunities: way too long, rambling, contains several major formatting errors
Will alienate: just about every baseball fan, anyone who does not regularly attend Sunday Mass in a Catholic church, and anyone who has ever voted for a Democrat, especially Obama
Baseball is America: A Child of Baseball is available on amazon.
Reviewed by Mark McGinty, January 2010