Baseball Books Reviewed: Pie Traynor
Pie Traynor: A Baseball Biography by James Forr and David Proctor (McFarland, 275 pg., $29.95). PB, 2010.
In recent years there has been a tendency for baseball biographers to champion their subjects; and further, when the player is thought to have Hall of Fame credentials, to informally head the campaign for the player's election to that august body. Such cheerleading is understandable and does not necessarily invalidate anything the author says, although it does rub some readers the wrong way, just as a "homer" in the broadcast booth does. It is rare to find a biography on the other end of the spectrum; such a book is Pie Traynor: A Baseball Biography (McFarland) by James Forr and David Proctor.
There was, of course, no need for the authors to try to assist Traynor's Hall of Fame chances, as the Pittsburgh Pirates' third baseman has been safely lodged in Cooperstown for many decades. In fact, for decades Traynor enjoyed an unquestioned status as the greatest player at his position, but recently he has slipped off that lofty pedestal and been replaced by two younger stalwarts: the player now accounted to have been the greatest fielding third baseman in history (Brooks Robinson ... not a bad hitter, either) and the greatest slugger to have ever manned the position (Mike Schmidt ... a Gold Glove fielder to boot). Unencumbered by a need either to challenge or lament this changing of the guard, the authors were free to tell Traynor's story in a straightforward
way with objectivity and empathy, which is exactly what they have done.
Working together from the two locales (Boston and Pittsburgh) predominant throughout the subject's life, Forr and Proctor assemble a wealth of information about Traynor that was generally not well known. Many readers will no doubt learn for the first time that Traynor grew up in Massachusetts (Somerville), after his family migrated to America from Canada (Haifax, Nova Scotia); that his play on an amateur summer team on Cape Cod (before the famous Cape Cod League was officially established) enhanced his reputation and greased his way into pro baseball; that he had tryouts with both the Boston Braves and Red Sox; and that when they bought him for $10,000 from the Portsmouth Truckers of the Virginia League, the Pirates practically stole him away from the Red Sox, who thought they had an understanding with Portsmouth which would give them first dibs on the youngster.
The least surprising part of the book are the chapters devoted to Traynor's major league career. Although the cavernous home ballpark he played in didn't help, Traynor never hit many home runs because he was a line drive hitter. He led the league in a batting category only once in his career (in triples in 1923), and his lifetime batting average of .320 was accomplished in an era of inflated averages. Nevertheless, he was a very productive hitter who seldom struck out, who knocked in more than 100 runs in a season seven different times, and who helped lead the Pirates to two pennants (1925 and 1927) and one World Championship. As for his legendary fielding, Traynor did work much magic at the hot corner, but he was far from perfect. He made his share of errors and had some chronic trouble with the accuracy of his throws, particularly after he hurt his arm late in his career.
At the end of his career Traynor became Pittsburgh's playing-manager for about one full season and then managed the Pirates for four more years, with modest success. Even though Traynor didn't give up the job willingly, as the authors make clear, he wasn’t really temperamentally suited for it or all that happy doing it. After scouting for the Pirates for a few years, Traynor finally moved on, so to speak, but he never really left baseball. After stints in Brookville, Indiana and Cincinnati, he and his wife, Eve, made Pittsburgh their permanent home. Because he never obtained a driver's license, Traynor walked the streets of Pittsburgh like a postman. He made friends everywhere he went and was a welcome guest in every sports hangout and team office in town. He had a radio sports show in Pittsburgh for years and later became a locally well-known pitchman
for an HVC company which sponsored, of all things, a professional wrestling show. However, through all his later endeavors, Traynor remained basically a Pittsburgh Pirates celebrity, who never turned down a speaking request or failed to treat everyone by the Golden Rule. The authors spend a good amount of time on these years, but nary a page is wasted as their efforts to define Traynor as a good and beloved human being (despite some of the flaws we all have), is richly executed and successful. In the end, without exaggerating the subject's accomplishments or his place in baseball history, Pie Traynor: A Baseball Biography immeasurably increases both our knowledge of and respect for the greatest third baseman to ever wear a Pirates' uniform.
Reviewed by: Mike Shannon (October 17, 2010)