* Review: Sixty Feet, Six Inches

October 26, 2009 · 2 comments

The New York Times Book Review published this article by David Leonhardt, who writes a weekly economics column for the paper.

His upshot in this full-page review:

Despite its engaging moments, though, “Sixty Feet, Six Inches” is mostly unsatisfying, because Gibson and Jackson play their roles as the grizzled veterans too predictably…. The men go on to lament aspects of today’s game, like batters who take too many pitches, managers who baby their pitchers and anybody who puts too much faith in scouting reports. Gibson and Jackson fail, unfortunately, to teach us much about the game they clearly know so well.

I have not yet read this book, but I can still disagree with some of Leonhardt’s assessments.

He writes,

The baseball memoir we’re still waiting for is the one that treats the recent information revolution not as a sign of cultural decay but as something worthy of thoughtful challenge…. [G]iven all the data now available and given the infinitesimal window during which players make decisions, what kind of scouting report is most useful? How could the new fielding metrics be improved? Why did so many of yesterday’s celebrated workhorse pitchers break down, while others did not? And what kind of clutch, or unclutch, hitters are ­really likely to remain so for the rest of their careers?

I respectfully submit that such analytics are not the function of a memoir. There are plenty of books by the likes of Bill James, Baseball Prospectus, and Hardball Times that address these issues. And goodness knows enough older writers (including the Times’ Murray Chass) have been chided for being “dinosaurs” for preferring a good story over a good set of numbers.

Gibson and Jackson were among the players I grew up with. Their stories and opinions are representative of that generation and akin to our grandparents opining how things were better in their day, when there weren’t the distractions of television, cell phones, and the Internet.

Are such stories gospel? No. but the do serve as a link to those by-gone days and shouldn’t be dismissed as the ramblings of some old geezer.

To be fair, Leonhardt notes that

At its best, the book is an oral history, and not just of baseball. Gibson and Jackson were part of the generation of black players, between Jackie Robinson and Jeter, who were accepted without being fully so. Gibson tells the story of an off-season barnstorming tour through the Southwest, in which the all-black Willie Mays All-Stars played the all-white Harmon Killebrew All-Stars. To find something to eat after games, the Mays All-Stars would sometimes send one of their players into a restaurant dressed as a chauffeur, and he would emerge with food for the team. “Or Sam Jones, who was light-skinned,” Gibson says, referring to a journeyman pitcher, “would pull a stocking cap down over his head, pass as white and pretend he was a deaf-mute.”

Such anecdotal information is never out of touch or out of place in a book the reviewer categorizes as a memoir. That’s the point of such books, isn’t it? Not to give an un-to-date report on the current state of the game or crunch numbers, but to tell a new generation of readers what baseball was like back in the day.

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