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Monday, June 23, 2008

Book Review: What If The Babe Had Kept His Red Sox?

Book Review: What If Babe Ruth Had Kept His Red Sox?

Chances are you will disagree with the alternate destinations the author takes in these 'what if' questions he poses in the book. That's not the point. The point is to provoke thought on how meaningful and important certain events were to sports and baseball by theorizing about what could've happened had they not happened the way they did.

He lays the groundwork for what really happened for those of us that don't know or don't remember. Some of the baseball issues he brings up are very interesting. As indicated by the title, one is about Ruth and him staying with the Red Sox instead of being sold to the Yankees. The biggest point he makes is that Boston isn't as big a city, or exciting a place, as New York and as such Ruth wouldn't have developed into the huge worldwide icon for baseball that he did. He also discusses park differences, and if Yankee Stadium would even have been built. Certainly the Yankee franchise wouldn't have been the same without Ruth and his home runs to fuel them, and coupled that with not moving into their own place in 1923 and continuing to share the Polo Grounds with the Giants, they would've remained second class (or third class) citizens. He makes valid points about a future path for the Yankees, Red Sox, and Ruth, an while it's not one I agree with necessarily, it's still fun to theorize about.

Another interesting baseball alternate-history is what would've happened if Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige integrated baseball in the 30s, rather than Jackie Robinson in the 40s. Despite the title, I felt this was the most thought out scenario in the book. There were rumors and suggestions that a team, maybe the Phillies, would consider signing players, particularly these two stars, out of the Negro leagues. There were many different reasons that this did not happen. Not only was there still racism all over the place, but many people felt taking the best players from the Negro Leagues would cause them to suffer and have to fold. However, this would've been one of the best ways for baseball to continue successfully. Many of the best players around the league were enlisting to fight in the war, and being able to choose from black players as well as white ones would've added some talent to the league that was sorely missing it. He suggests that if both guys were signed by the same team, they'd have the benefit of each other to get through the tough parts of integration, where Jackie had to do it all by himself.

There is a whole section on trades, which is one of the most popularly posed 'what-if' questions. Mets fans still routinely like to think about what it'd be like if they had signed Alex Rodriguez, if they hadn't traded Scott Kazmir, or if they'd signed Vladimir Guerrero. These kinds of regrets and second-guessing of past GM decisions are part of every fan base, and the author here takes some of the bigger trades throughout baseball history and theorizes where the teams involved would be if they hadn't made them. It's interesting to postulate about how things would've turned out.

Other topics include what if the Cleveland Browns hadn't entered the NFL? Would they just have vanished into obscurity in the start-up All-America Football Conference? Would the league have folded and all of the players on the Browns dispersed via draft, never to have that successful run together upon entering the NFL? What if Cassius Clay had lost the fight to Sonny Liston? Would he still have become Muhammad Ali? Would he still be one of the most recognized athletes? What about Sonny Liston? Would have retained the title for much longer, or was his time up and was their nothing he could do about it? Did the NHL expand too much too fast? Did doubling in size hurt the quality of the game and the talent pool? Would golf still be the sport it is today if Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus had been anything but extraordinary? Their rivalry really brought fans to the game, and helped make golf into a major event. Had they not both been great, they never would've been able to directly compete against each other as much, and had that never happened a lot of the excitement would've gone out of the game. These two also altered the game for the other players. Once they started bringing in fans and ratings, suddenly more tournaments started popping up, and bigger prize pools. It was suddenly becoming possible for more than the top one or two guys to make a living playing golf.

Reading through all these what-if situations was fun. Even when I didn't agree with how things would turn out, It was still interesting to see how much things could change based on small decisions through history.

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