The Summer of Beer and Whiskey by Edward Achorn

Beer and WhiskeyThe tagline for this history of the formation of baseball’s American Association reads “How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America’s Game” and the book contains all of the colour, fascination and anticipation that the pitch suggests. The story is all brought together through the 1883 pennant race which goes right to the wire as an astonishing cast of characters combine to save a distrusted game ravaged by cheats and gamblers.

Behind it all are of course enterprising men trying to make money, but they are also passionate sports fans and driven to save the game from its past reputation, as well as bring success to their respective cities and money to their own pockets. The combination of personal stories of triumph and pain, broader social history and the excitement of a competitive season of play is a heady mix that educates and entertains in equal measure. The reader quickly builds relationships with the owners, players and teams of this upstart association and delights at their efforts to bring home the prize.

The only sour touch comes from the appalling racism which cast a shadow over the period and is shocking in its ignorance and pervasiveness. It was another 60 years before Jackie Robinson bravely crossed the colour line and the book does not shirk the unpleasant truths of open abuse and discrimination. But in this way it ensures that we get a full and authentic view of the game at the time and the book does that exceptionally well. Baseball is America’s game but it might not have been without the passion and energy of these remarkable men. Achorn has paid them a memorable tribute in this well researched and captivating work.

Where Nobody Knows Your Name by John Feinstein

NobodyLast summer I spent three weeks in the USA and took the opportunity to indulge a long held interest in the game of baseball. Ever since the New York Mets 1986 World Series victory was covered by Channel 4 I had been intrigued by the game and that was further fuelled by W P Kinsella’s wonderful book Shoeless Joe, the resultant film Field of Dreams and a canon of other movies about the sport.

My stay in New York unfortunately coincided with the Yankees being in town rather than the Mets, but I swallowed my allegiances and headed to Yankee Stadium to see the hosts demolish long time rivals the Boston Red Sox in my first ever live game. I loved the whole experience, except maybe the catering stand prices, thrilled to finally be watching a game.

John Feinstein’s book is about life in the minor leagues away from the glamour and big pay cheques of the majors. It’s a fascinating introduction to the journeys of players, coaches, umpires and announcers as he follows the fortunes of a colourful cast of characters as they seek to either achieve or recapture their dreams of being in the “Bigs”. As a football fan in England who supports a Championship club and also follows non-league football the book resonates across sports.

If you are interested in baseball and would like to know more about the game and the people invested in it I cannot recommend this book, from a National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame member, enough.