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‘The Baseball 100’ an absolute home run

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I love baseball history.

As an athletic late bloomer, my initial love of baseball came from its stories. Now, those stories came in different forms. Some were told through first-hand accounts and memories. Others were told through numbers. Both were fascinating to a clumsy kid who loved the game a bit more than it loved him back.

And yet, as much as I love baseball history … Joe Posnanski loves it more.

Posnanski’s new book is “The Baseball 100” (Avid Reader Press, $40), and it’s exactly what it sounds like – a compendium of essays, a list of the greatest players in the long history of the sport, ranked according to the opinions and whims of one man. The book was born of an ongoing feature at the sports website The Athletic, where the first versions of these essays ran.

It’s a wonderful collection of snapshots, purely distilled amalgams of both kinds of stories – memories and numbers – delivered with the unique aw-shucks humility and elevated dad humor of Joe Posnanski. His reverence for the game, his sheer unadulterated love for it, runs through every one of these 100 pieces. From inner circle Hall of Famers to names that might not be as familiar to the casual fan, Posnanski counts us down through the greatest of all time.

From the man at 100 (Ichiro Suzuki) all the way to number one, Posnanski offers up wonderfully readable distillations of what makes each one of these players such a special part of the history of the game.

Now, it should be noted that Posnanski makes particular effort to ensure that those who never got the opportunity to perform in the major leagues get their due. Scattered throughout the list are players who made their names in the Negro Leagues, men who were denied their place in the game by the prejudices of the past.

For the record, I will not be spoiling his number one pick. However, to give the curious a sense of what’s coming however, I will give you his top 10 in alphabetical order. Please note that this absolutely IS NOT the official order of things – in fact, not one of these players is in the place he occupies on the list:

Henry Aaron, Barry Bonds, Oscar Charleston, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Satchel Paige, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams.

That’s a who’s who of some of the greatest talents in the history of the sport, to be sure. And every one of these essays is alive and breathing, crackling with the boundless energy generated by Posnanski’s love of the game … but that is true of ALL the essays in this collection. All 100 of them, playing out over nearly 900 phenomenal pages.

And before you dismiss this book as the misty-eyed mutterings of a man remembering the glory of their times, you should bear in mind that Posnanski happily mutters about some players who are currently active. His are eyes of equal opportunity misting, his definition of greatness leaving room for the players of today as well as those from days gone by.

(I won’t tell you who those current players are either, though you can probably guess most of them.)

Posnanski readily acknowledges the inherent subjectivity of a list like this one; there are many ways to measure baseball greatness, and while he avails himself of many such measures, he’s also not above using the list to engage with a larger point.

So it is that Joe DiMaggio sits at 56, the same number as his remarkable longstanding hit streak, and the great Jackie Robinson is number 42, the uniform number that now has been retired by every major league team in recognition of the man’s iconic status. Does that mean that these are the spots where Posnanski has them actually ranked? Not so much, but he can’t resist a little symbolism, and besides, what’s the point of making this kind of list if you aren’t going to have a little fun?

And that, more than anything, is what makes this book great – it’s fun. Sometimes, we get a by-the-stats breakdown of a player’s greatness. Other times, anecdotal evidence of legendary status. We’re walked through some of the game’s iconic numbers – 56, 4,256, 511, .406, 2,632, 755 – and shown how even when the significance of those numbers changes, we still remember them. We also get some of the myths behind the men – the booming power and blazing speed and brilliant arms of those who never saw the big leagues. Yes, there’s Ruth and Aaron and Williams, but there’s also Pop Lloyd and Bullet Rogan and Sadaharu Oh – names that aren’t as ingrained in the popular consciousness, but that are just as integral to the history of the game. All of them brought to vivid life by Posnanski, whose combination of passion and intelligence make him the perfect writer to embark on such a massive project. Just a remarkable project.

I was always going to dig “The Baseball 100.” I’ve been enamored of baseball history for going on 40 years and I’ve been an admirer of Posnanski’s work for close to half that time. I’m fully in the bag for this one. It’s a wonderful exploration of one man’s thoughts on the greatest of all time. But here’s the thing – it’s ALSO a fantastic entry point for those just starting to engage with the sport’s past greats. Each of these essays provides a delightful combination of deep-dive wonkiness and straightforward celebratory joy – a perfect combination for anyone who loves baseball.

It’s a cliché to say this, but clichés exist for a reason – “The Baseball 100” is an absolute home run.

Last modified on Wednesday, 29 September 2021 08:24

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