* RK Review: Sixty Feet, Six Inches

January 7, 2010

A Hall of Fame Pitcher & A Hall of Fame Hitter Talk About How the Game is Played, by Bob Gibson and Reggie Jackson with Lonnie Wheeler (Doubleday, 2009)

When I first heard about this book, I immediately wondered, who had the bigger ego? How was the process handled? Did Gibson tell Jackson to meet with him, or vice versa? Did veteran writer Lonnie Wheeler push and prod, or did he just take notes?

Sixty Feet, Six Inches is a wonderfully apt for this book which separates the batter from the pitcher. These Hall of Famers have made the rounds together to promote the book and seem to get along…despite the fact that their positions in the game — batter and pitcher — should make them natural enemies.

There’s a good deal of anecdotal material. As you know, I’m a big believer in not taking such proclamations at face value, but after checking out just a couple of events, I gave up; there’s only so much time in the day and after awhile, does it really matter all that much? Still you have to be amazed at the recall these guys have in general (does Jackson really keep in his head that he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated eight times?), although I’m sure that more and more often, someone is checking, whether it’s Wheeler or someone at the publishing house.

Jumping back and forth from the batter’s box to the pitcher’s mound gets a bit dizzying. It’s hard to believe Jackson and his brethren can be as analytical as they claim in real time, when they are basically reacting to the pitchers’ actions.

Books like this indulge in a lot of name-dropping by both subjects. Younger and more casual fans might not recognize many of the players to whom Jackson and Gibson refer, but for older folks like me, it’s endearingly nostalgic. In fact, my favorite sections have nothing to do with face-to-face combat or statistics. Rather it’s the little things that go on behind the scenes, such as the chapter on “Things a fellow just has to deal with,” such as umpires, catchers, ball parks, fans, and other distractions. Gibson played most of his career in St. Louis, while Jackson had perhaps his most visible seasons in New York; vastly different media situations. One wonders what impact, if any, such scrutiny might have had on Gibson.

Then there are the sociological aspects.Gibson began his career in the 1950s, when racism in the game was still rampant; Jackson experienced this early on in his career, but I doubt to the same extent. I always find it heartening to know that there were good people like Oakland As teammates Sal Bando and Joe Rudi and Stan Musial and manager Johnny Keane of the Cardinals to offer support.

There’s a lot of material to digest in Sixty Feet, Six Inches, but it’s presented in a most palatable way, which I attribute to Wheeler, who has worked on such previous projects as I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story and Bleachers: A Season in the Sun, as well as Gibson’s autobiography, Stranger to the Game. Hard to believe it’s been so long since Gibson and Jackson have retired.

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