The Head Game

Baseball Seen From the Pitcher's Mound

By Roger Kahn

A Harvest Book. New York: Harcourt Inc., 2001


I only remember fragments of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Some baseball cards: Carl Furillo, Roy Campanella, the very young Sandy Koufax. I might have seen them on TV once or twice; might have seen some of the ’56 World Series. I knew they were called the Bums and that people who followed them were a little eccentric. Then they moved to Los Angeles, and they were just like Chester A. Riley on the TV show, a comical Brooklyn guy out of place among the palm trees.

Then in 1972 Roger Kahn wrote a book called The Boys of Summer, one of the most influential baseball books ever written. Kahn got to know the Dodgers because he covered them for the New York Herald Tribune. His book created, in our mind's eye, a mythical team called the Brooklyn Dodgers, and we said to ourselves, this is what a baseball team should be like. The Brooklyn team probably got more fans from Boys of Summer than they had when they were an actual baseball team. The myth overcame the reality.

Unfortunately, Roger Kahn can't stop singing his big hit song. Head Game is a book about pitching. Sandy Koufax is on the cover. The Prologue tells the tale of Clem Labine, a hurler for "the Brooklyn Dodgers, of sainted memory." No, the whole book isn't only about Dodgers and Roger Kahn, but here in Chapter 1, young Roger learns to throw the curve ball on the sandlots of Brooklyn. And then, the inevitable, "When I went forth to cover the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1952, the most cerebral Brooklyn pitcher was a tall, skinny hillbilly named Elwin Charles ‘Preacher’ Roe…" In Chapter 2, "I remember hardball pickup games from the 1930s…"

With Kahn there is a tendency to let himself and his opinions to get in the way of an otherwise good story. (I'm told that in another book he asserts that Jackie Robinson would have supported McGovern for President. Jackie, to the surprise of many, was actually an ardent Republican and a friend of Richard Nixon.)

As long as we are thrashing Roger Kahn, we should mention that in his Cy Young chapter he tells the tale of Nuf Ced McGreevey, the leader of Boston's Royal Rooters a hundred years ago. Except he calls him ‘Nuf Said, and calls the group the Loyal Rooters, and quotes John Tunis as saying " ‘Nuf Said was a huge Irishman" and again "one powerful Irishman." But photographs from the era reveal that Mr. McGreevey was a wee man who barely came up to Cy Young’s shoulder.

OK, so Kahn is quoting the boyhood memories of oldtimer John Tunis, the author of boys’ baseball fiction. But Roger, a former reporter, should have saved Tunis the embarrassment by checking his facts. Or maybe Kahn just wrote them down wrong. After all, they didn't happen in Brooklyn, so how would he know?

Plus, there's that gratuitous note of self-importance: "Tunis and I were sitting in a New York restaurant, the luncheon guests of one of the editors of the New York Times Magazine…" Hey, wait, wasn't this chapter supposed to be about CI Young? It's not really. The book would have been better titled More of Roger Kahn's Memories, Including Many about Pitching, as told to Roger Kahn.

On the plus side, there's a chapter about Johnny Sain, with ample evidence that Johnny was the greatest pitching coach ever. Conversations with Warren Spahn can't be all bad. And there are nice bits about less-famous pitchers like Old Hoss Radbourn and Bruce Sutter.

Few modern fans understand the importance of Sutter’s career. He was the first successful exponent of the split-fingered fastball. Bruce says he learned the split-fingered pitch from a pitching coach in the Cubs’ organization named Fred Martin, and adds that he and Martin showed the pitch to Roger Craig (who often claimed to have invented it) on the sidelines before a game in the 1970s, when Craig was a coach with San Diego. The pitch started a craze in the 1980’s and is now a standard part of the pitching repertoire.

Kahn doesn't really get into it, but Sutter was the also first saves-oriented relief pitcher. That is, he only worked in save situations, unlike previous great relievers like El Roy Face or Dick Radatz, who might appear in the seventh inning of a tie game. Whether the new standard is a blessing or curse depends on your point of view. Cubs’ manager Herman Franks introduced it to save Sutter’s arm. Bruce ended his career with exactly 300 saves.

Here is Roger Kahn's list of "the greatest pitchers since the dawn of baseball":

1. Christy Mathewson.

2. Sandy Koufax / Bob Gibson / Juan Marichal

5. Allie Reynolds

6. Grover Cleveland Alexander

7. Bruce Sutter

8. Bob Feller

9. Walter Johnson

10. Sal Maglie

11. Warren Spahn

12. Jerry Solovey of Lake Mohegan, N.Y. Writes Kahn, "…Why is he here? As I remarked, lists are subjective. Solovey could always get me out."

Reviewed by David Nevard (2001)