Baseball Books Reviewed: The Baseball

The Baseball: Stunts, Scandals, and Secrets Beneath the Stitches by Zack Hample. (Anchor Books, 356 pg., $14.95). PB, 2011.

Of all the numerous unique aspects that the game of baseball has going for it, none is more important or more fascinating that the ball itself. Our familiarity with this most commonplace of all sports objects belies just how little we average fans know about it. The antidote to this pervasive ignorance is to be found in the first book to take as its entire subject the baseball itself, Zack Hample’s The Baseball: Stunts, Scandals, and Secrets Beneath the Stitches.

Years ago “ballhawk” was a sportswriters’ term for an outfielder, and it was especially beloved by writers of juvenile baseball fiction. Today, the word has a new meaning, as it refers to those fans whose hobby (make that “obsession” in the strictest use) is acquiring, through just about any means other than purchases, baseballs used by professional ball teams. The author of the book under review is not only a bona fide ballhawk, he is also the king of ballhawks, having snagged 4,662 baseballs from 48 different major league ballparks. There is no one more qualified than Mr. Hample to conduct a how-to seminar on the art of ballhawking, and one of the three parts the book is divided into is devoted to the topic. The ultimate feat for a ballhawk is to catch a home run ball during a game, but other ballhawking opportunities include catching or corralling foul balls during games, catching “home run” or foul balls during batting practice, and getting a ballplayer to toss you a ball (before or during the game); and Hample has plenty of specific advice on just how best to accomplish each of these feats. Especially intriguing is the advice on what to do if you are lucky enough to catch a baseball with a high monetary value, along with the rundown on how fans who have caught such balls in the past have handled their fortunate situations (some have given the balls back to the players who wanted them for virtual trinkets; others have cashed in big time; a few have donated their valuable balls to Cooperstown).

As useful as “Part Three: How to Snag Major League Baseballs” is, many readers will find the three chapters of “Part Two: Historical and Factual Stuff” to be even more enlightening; containing as they do in-depth essays on modern manufacturing, testing, and storage practices and a 60-page history of the baseball (covering origins, competing compositions and designs, trade wars among different manufacturers, innovations, the gradual increase in the number of balls used in a typical game from one to several dozens as well as increases in the numbers used by each league over the course of a season, rule changes affecting the composition and production of baseballs, the number of home runs hit each season and the attendant scandals associated with the use of steroids, and the seemingly never-ending controversies about whether the ball is juiced or not). Older fans have been exposed to all this information as it happened, but to have it chronologically assembled and presented as it is here is to gain a new appreciation of how the ball itself was undergoing an important historical process at the same time that all our attention was focused on what the players did with the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of baseballs they used in playing the games.

Just as eye-opening as this history is Hample’s seamlessly written and detailed explanation of how Rawlings makes baseballs today. The process is a whole lot more labor-intensive and complicated than you would expect; some idea of which can be conveyed when you consider that there are six specific possibly-correctible flaws that a newly made baseball can have. After reading what goes into the making of a major league baseball, you will never again take one for granted. Hample also does an admirable job of injecting a little humor into what might have been a dull recitation with passages like this: “Let’s get something straight: cows are not killed to make baseballs. They’re killed because people like to eat them, so don’t accuse MLB of animal cruelty.”

The first part of the book, a hodge-podge of topics, such as “Stunts” and “Death by Baseball,” which are collected under the rubric “Baseballs in the News,” is the least interesting, but it may be that it suffers mainly in comparison to the more indispensible Parts Two and Three. Certainly the story of what happened to “Hank Aaron’s Final Home Run” is worth reading. In any case, even had Part One been left out, this book would remain the new authority on its subject, as well as a delightful guide to a segment of the baseball fan population many people are not in the least aware of. The book even profiles the “Top 10 Ballhawks of All Time,” with Hample modesty leaving himself out of the list. It’s the only notable omission in the book, other than the term “ballhawk” being left out of the “Ballhawk Glossary.” But I guess the author was thinking that if you enjoy the topic of this absorbing book as much as he does, you won’t even notice it.

Reviewed by: Mike Shannon (March 12, 2011)