- The Washington Times - Friday, April 2, 2010


By Tim Wendel

Da Capo Press, $25, 288 pages


By Timothy M. Gay

Simon & Schuster, $26, 349 pages


If Washington is still waiting for redemption as a 21st-century baseball town, it may still have to wait a bit longer. But what Washington has lacked on the playing field is made up for in the literary field. Five important baseball narratives and biographies have been or will be published by local authors over the next nine months.

July brings “Charlie Finley: The Outrageous Story of Baseball’s Super Showman” by G. Michael Green and Roger Launius (Walker & Co.); Jane Leavy’s long-anticipated “The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood” will come out in September (Harper), and Bob Luke’s “The Most Famous Woman in Baseball: Effa Manley and the Negro Leagues” (Potomac Books) is due out at the beginning of 2011.

The other two books just published in time for Opening Day are Tim Wendel’s “High Heat: The Secret History of the Fastball and the Improbable Search for the Fastest Pitcher of All Time” and Tim Gay’s “Satch, Dizzy & Rapid Robert: The Wild Saga of Interracial Baseball Before Jackie Robinson.” These are two dandy books destined to be hardball classics. They are fresh, intelligent and created by writers eager to please their readers with precise, high-speed prose befitting their topics.

Mr. Wendel’s work is picaresque - a quest to find the fastest pitcher who ever pitched regardless of when or where he pitched. The book is based on the premise that baseball, for all of its obsession with statistics and numbers, has no objective measure of speed. The radar gun is imperfect, not recognized as authoritative and denies comparison to fireballers who came along before the device was invented. Speed was measured in metaphor - that so-and-so could “throw a lamb chop past a wolf” - or by melodramatic tests.

For example, in a 1940 attempt to measure the speed of his fastball, Bob Feller hurled a ball at a small target as a Chicago motorcycle cop raced down the same path. Using some formulas created for the test, he was said to have thrown 104.5 miles per hour - but the test seemed imperfect.

“Who was the fastest pitcher of all time?” Bob Feller asked Mr. Wendel rhetorically. “The world will never know, may never agree, but it sure is fun to talk about, isn’t it?” Exactly. Mr. Wendel starts his odyssey at a reception held at Nationals Park for ballplayers who had been in the military service during World War II and travels all over the country trying to find his answer.

One moment, he is in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood cemetery looking for the tomb of a 19th-century great, and the next moment, he is in the principal’s office at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda talking about the importance of the school’s namesake. He is variously in Cooperstown pawing through old newspaper clippings, sitting with Mr. Feller watching newsreel film of him pitching against that motorcycle and following the path of the legendary minor leaguer Steve Dalkowski (the basis for the character Nuke LaLoosh of “Bull Durham”) who supposedly threw at 105 miles per hour but never pitched a game in the majors.

Mr. Wendel settled on 10 candidates based on a consensus of the people he interviewed for “High Heat.” Included in the final 10 are such famous names as Feller, Satchel Paige, Nolan Ryan and Johnson as well as less-knowns like Dalkowski and Amos Rusie, who only pitched one game in the 20th century. You will have to read the book to learn who his choice is as the fastest pitcher ever. You may not agree with him, but it is hard not to have enjoyed every moment of his journey to that selection.

Two of the three top pitchers in Mr. Wendel’s book are the subject of Tim Gay’s work, which is also a journey of sorts. He travels back to a world ruled by Jim Crow in which black and white ballplayers played against and occasionally with each other in exhibition games during the 1930s and 1940s. Mr. Gay shows us that these exhibitions were rollicking good times acted out by guys who had immense talent and never really took themselves too seriously.

Mr. Gay has skillfully re-created a world within baseball that does not appear in the record books nor the collective memory of the game, but is given new life here. Paige, the legendary pitcher of Negro League fame, finds a perfect mock adversary in former St. Louis Cardinals icon Dizzy Dean. Part of their act was to come out and imitate the other man’s pitching style. After Dean got too old and sick, the matchups were between Paige and Feller, who were longtime - and friendly - barnstorming rivals, having first met in Des Moines when Mr. Feller, an Iowa farm kid, was still only 17.

What the two white pitchers understood was not only that making black players part of their traveling shows would draw record crowds, but that they were fine athletes. When Paige was brought to the majors in 1948 as a teammate of Mr. Feller’s, it was in part because Mr. Feller vouched for his ability.

In addition to these five new works, three baseball classics by local writers have just been reprinted or are about to be republished by Dover Publications: Bill Mead’s book on baseball during World War II, “Even the Browns”; Larry Moffi’s “This Side of Cooperstown,” which is about players with a major impact on the game who are not in the Hall of Fame; and a revised edition of John Holway’s groundbreaking “Voices From the Great Black Baseball Leagues.”

So take that New York, Chicago, Philadelphia ….

Paul Dickson is working on a biography of Bill Veeck.

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